One of the interesting things about the great firewall of China is how much of the work involved is actually distributed outside of the official internet police. Yes, there have been stories about the 30,000 people hired to police the internet, but recent stories have shown how a lot of the effectiveness may come from a more distributed nature. A few weeks ago, for example, a story came out talking about how the government has basically told ISPs that they had better ban the bad stuff, or they'd get punished -- and that has resulted in the ISPs simply guessing about what should be banned -- and erring on the side of banning more, rather than less, to avoid punishment. A new story highlights even more of how the system works (while also pegging the number of Internet police employed in China at 50,000, rather than 30,000), talking about a university that employs 500 students to act as online moderators. While the role does include hunting down "bad" content for deletion, the more important part is trying to start, maintain and guide discussions around "nice" topics. Professors and administrators suggest to these students topics they might want to talk about (an example given is "what actors make the best role models?") -- and the students post those discussions online. They also take part in other discussions, always trying to keep the topic on "good" content, or moving the conversation in that direction should it stray. Of course, none of these students reveal that they're part of the official, student-run, internet monitoring group. What may be most interesting, though, is the response from other students -- who can't believe how many students are involved in the monitoring/guided conversation role, along with others who think it's laughable that the University and the government think they can control the internet: "If you're not allowed to talk here you just go to another place to talk, and there are countless places for your opinions. It's easy to bypass the firewalls, and anybody who spends a little time researching it can figure it out." And, of course, that's going to keep getting easier, as new tools show up.
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