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SXSW Report: Ben Walker on 'Net Censorship in China
Emily Gertz, 13 Mar 05

Yesterday at SXSW: a presentation on blogging and censorship, with Hossain Derakhshan, prominent Iranian-Canadian blogger, and Benjamin Walker, radio host and Berkman Center for Internet and Society fellow, who just got back from China last week. Hot on the heels of this March 4 New York Times article on censorship of blogs in China, he refuted what he defined as several misconceptions of the western media on how the Internet is being used there.

Misconception 1: We in the west assume that millions of Chinese are searching for information to aid their revolutionary struggles.
Truth: Most Internet users in China are looking for the same thing most Western users are looking for. Porn.

Misconception 2: Information from the outside gets blocked at the national level, especially on oppressed movements such as Falun Gong.
Truth: Chinese get flooded with unwanted email about this and a lot of other things, and just like users in the west, they consider it spam.

Misconception 3: There are 30,000 to 50,000 "Internet police" who do nothing but monitor people's email, web surfing, etc.
Truth: This is a number invented by officials for official propaganda missives, aimed at the national media, not Western reporters, who nonetheless take up information ministry press releases as legitimate and use them as source material.

Misconception 4: Only the most tech-sophisticated kids know how to use proxies to get beyond the firewall and onto "banned sites."
Truth: Lots and lots of users regularly use proxies to not only get to more content, but to avoid extra pay-per-service charges. (Although, apparently even this does not manage to evade the highly effective national censoring of porn content.)

Misconception 5: Censorship is all happening at the government level.
Truth: Censorship is more prevalent at the personal level, with bloggers omitting or removing references to certain ideas or issues in order to avoid trouble with the authorities. Service providers in China also must cooperate with the authorities on screening for certain words and phrases and intervening with those who post them, but the active hand of the government with individuals is rare.

According to bloggers Walker interviewed, the Chinese blogosphere is evolving, with bloggers carefully testing the openness of the system. There are different levels of censorship--new tools might help users move towards freer use of blogs for more sensitive topics. For example, on Google China, blogs are starting to rank higher than official web sites on searches about "city reconstruction," a phrase that signifies development in the countryside. It's a significant shift in information resources, that points at the potential for bloggers to reveal more of the truth about life in China to each other.

All very interesting to me -- I've been reserved in my trust in the "blogosphere" to foment social revolution in places like China, where it seems like it was too easy to stop up the pipe -- a view definitely influenced by what I've read in papers like the Times. Walker's POV is that we need to look a lot deeper than what mainstream press is reporting about blogs, the Internet and China.

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"Walker's POV is that we need to look a lot deeper than what mainstream press is reporting about blogs, the Internet and China.". This is true. I have been doing research on Chinese bloggers(including me) and found that the misconceptions exist everywhere in the mainstream media.

Posted by: amy on 14 Mar 05

It's not that hard to think through. Any communication medium that is viewed as exclusively, or largely revolutionary will be banned by any repressive state. If you're going to actually get anything done on the political level, the politics has to be parasitical, coming along for the ride as a very small percentage of the information content. The problem with porn as the main stream of bits is that it helps out in the demonization campaign whenever they decide to crack down on an individual or internet based liberty group. The negative association of porn and internet is easily transferrable to any other internet user. Until there are non-revolutionary commercial, social, and political uses for the Internet in the PRC the politically liberating stuff will operate under a handicap.

Posted by: TM Lutas on 14 Mar 05

Welcome, Amy. I'd love to hear more on where you see the misconceptions.

I have not had a chance yet to go look, and so didn't include it in my post, but one site mentioned was, written by a Dutch journalist, which deconstructs a lot of the official Chinese news releases and how they're picked up by Western media.

TM, as I took it, one of the points both Walker and Derakhshan were making was that this idea of overtly political goals for using the Internet is a fundamental western misunderstanding of what both Chinese and Iranian/Persian bloggers are up to. In part this is due to the fact that the vast majority of the English-speaking west cannot read Persian or Chinese--including reporters--and thus rely on the relatively few English-language bloggers, and government press releases, to portray the issues in the west.

These folks are often simply discussing their own lives, or what they see around them, with greater or lesser degrees of skill and acuity, just like many other bloggers in other, "freer" countries (again, according to the panelists--I can't speak to this myself, unfortunately) In these societies, which have a lot of internal barriers to communication, this is significant. Derakhshan mentioned that for male Iranians, reading a blog by an Iranian woman is a bridge into a view of their own culture that they've probably never had before.

It's social change, but on their own terms--not the terms defined by Western romanticization of a "struggle for freedom."

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 14 Mar 05

apologies, wrong url above.


Posted by: Emily Gertz on 14 Mar 05



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