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Pop!Tech 2005: Rebecca MacKinnon on China on the Net
Ethan Zuckerman, 22 Oct 05

pusalo.jpgMy Berkman colleague Rebecca MacKinnon starts her Pop!Tech talk with a story about a small village outside of Beijing - Pu Sa Lu. In 1999, she was the Beijing bureau chief for CNN and she's travelling to this hick town to do a story on UFOs - which are just as much an obsession in China as in the US. She spends a short time interviewing peasants who've seen flying lights over the chicken coop... but what the party secretary really wants to show her is, the local website to encourage village tourism. Pu Sa Lu now has a Digital Homestead training center to help train young people to develop products and services for sale online.

But not everyone is using the Internet the way the Chinese government expected them to. Mu Zi Mei became tremendously famous by operating a blog, which detailed the intricacies of her extremely active sex life. The current hit song in China by Yang Chengang, a previously unknown 28 year old music teacher from Hubei, has been promoted solely on the web... yet millions of young Chinese are singing along with him as he sings, "I love you the way mice love rice".

Stars used to be made by the communist party aparatus - now they're being made online, by bloggers and bulletin board users. Li Yuchun, a tomboyish Chinese singer, won the recent "Super Girl" contest with help from bloggers - one wrote "I don't think I will ever get to vote for president in my lifetime, but at least I get to vote for the girl I like..."

China's become truly huge on the internet in recent years - while only 8% of Chinese citizens are online, that's 103m people, making China the world's second largest Internet userbase. They're the largest mobile phone market, with 385m users. And they're creating content - there are 50 blog hosting services in China, and 5m blogs.

The Chinese government doesn't censor everything - they're trying to make sure that political leaders and political movements don't get built online the same way that pop stars do. Talk about an issue like Taishi and your site or service will get shut down. Talk about your sex life, and no one will make trouble for you.

Rebecca shows off the Great Firewall of China - the Chinese firewall makes it impossible to search for certain terms on Google. On Chinese blogging sites - from Blogbus to MSN Spaces - certain terms (like "democracy" or "freedom of speech") will simply be blocked by the server. The server administrator protects you, the user, from getting into trouble with authorities by talking about forbidden topics. You're free to talk about what you're free to talk about, and protected from touching the third rail of politics.

Rebecca points out that other types of speech are permitted - anti-Japanese speech, for instance, is permitted online. But when that information brings people out into the streets, it tends to generate a crackdown - anti-Japanese street protests generated a strong government reaction, despite the popularity of games like "Resist Japan Online", which encourages you to score points by killing Japanese soliders.

The Chinese are moving ahead of the US in a number of internet spaces - podcasting, blogging via mobile phones, video blogging. But these new technologies have censorship baked in. Censorship isn't slowing down the growth of these companies - they're growing in ways that assume that certain speech will be censored.

If China's the largest internet userbase in the future, what does this mean for the Internet? Are the tools we use going to prevent us from engaging in certain types of speech? Are other countries going to want to adopt a Chinese-style internet rather than a US style one? Are there things we can do to ensure we don't get censorship baked into the code and the business model?

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This morning I had an odd experience talking to a Falun Gong member. Their local group set up in downtown's psychogeographic center and usual home for protests and vigils- the lawn in front of the public library. For context, Halifax NS is a small capital and provincial center (~360k) blessed by several universities and immigrant populations of various backgrounds.

After chatting a few minutes, I asked him what he wanted us to *do*. Besides the usual fare of raising awareness about their group and skillfully repeating that they don't want any money, the biggest surprise was his request that we spread the word to any Chinese friends we had. Here we are, routing around communication damage in meatspace- the old fashioned way, supplemented by the net.

That doesn't really answer the questions I'm afraid. Hopefully they would be less pressing if social organization took care of the censorhip.

Posted by: Daniel Haran on 22 Oct 05



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