Better Understanding China's Online Censorship

from the shades-of-gray? dept

Lots of folks have been talking about the latest NY Times Magazine article on the struggle of Google in China (plenty of folks submitted it here as well, so thanks). It’s a long article, and well worth reading for a variety of reasons. Much of it has been covered to death elsewhere, from the way many in China view the censorship issue to the fact that Baidu is used for downloading copyrighted material. Two things, though, stood out that were different about it than other stories we’ve seen about Google and China and the whole censorship issue. The first is that Google finally gets to tell their whole story on how they view China — and it doesn’t sound nearly as bad as the original coverage. Or, the more cynical among you may say that Google has finally figured out how to spin their side of the story to make it sound positive. When the story first came out, Google looked awful — and everything they said in response (remember the famous “sliding scale of evil”?) made them look worse. However, as described in this piece, their position comes out looking much better (whether or not you believe their side is up to you, of course). The other, perhaps more interesting, bit is that contrary to popular opinion, the Great Firewall of China doesn’t necessarily work by having a big ban list, but by simply having government officials threaten companies that let in the “bad stuff.” Then, those companies feel the need to self-censor whatever the government might not like — probably going overboard in the process. In other words, they’re trying to outsource the job of censoring by creating a fearful atmosphere that is more likely to censor any potentially problematic site without waiting for word from the government. It’s that element that might make you wonder, no matter how good Google’s intentions are, if they’ll really be able to be able to live up to their motto, and stay on the right side of Chinese officials at the same time.

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Comments on “Better Understanding China's Online Censorship”

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Axe says:


…bad publicity has been a corporate tactic since day one, but there should be no illusion that companies such as: Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and IBM have shareholders to answer to and those same shareholders want to earn money. With 1.3 billion reasons to enter the Chinese market, I can understand their motivation.

The hidden benefit is that the Hardliner “Red Book” thumping Maoists have as little control over the content in the Internet as western democratic governments. The Bush administration is trying to change that, but that’s another issue all together. In order to stem the flow of information, China would have to revert back to isolationism and that would economically ruin the country.

In the coming years we’ll all have better reasons to be upset with our corporations and China (wholesale sellouts, labor undercutting and price busting)

Chuck says:

Another stage of freedom or one-world?

Remember back to the late 80’s (I know its hard for some of you) when the Soviet Union was taken down by freedom? Hey! That is only 17 years ago. At that time it was the fax – yes, the lowly fax. The pro-freedom forces would blitz faxes on emerging stories and get around the censors. Without the fax there would have been no knowledge by the freedom-dissidents of daily progress, such was the strength of the commie censorship. Many attribute the fall of the Soviets to Reagan and the U. S. military build-up which the Soviets couldn’t match and reportedly went bankrupt trying to do. But, as strong an argument can be made for the distribution of knowledge by fax to all corners of the Soviet Union because for the first time the Russian people (and, of course, their slave nationals) could get the truth. So, now we see the same going on in China, a nation that makes it illegal for its citizens to have control over a website not located within its boundries (and therefore under its control), a nation that will put its citizens in prison almost as freely (and with not much less of what goes for imprisoning excuses today) as the United States. For example, Google’s co-operation with the commies in China recently resulted in the imprisonment of a dissident merely for having a DRAFT message stuplidly stored at Google. Talk about throught cops…

There have been many futurists who have foretold of a world run by corporate interests – the sort of science fiction stuff that is really scary – but, while this may never happen, the ability of the nation state to compel one behavior, or another, from corporate powers has always existed. Go back only 70 years in Germany and see how the Nazis compelled Germany’s corporations into not only financing the Nazi party but, as well, its pogroms.

So, too, with Google and others of its ilk. While we can compare the lowly fax with revolutionizing the freedoms of the world favorably with the advent of the Gutenberg press can we ever compare the benefical effects of Google with anything other than the tendency of government to spread tyranny?

Jasper says:

Nothing new or exonerating here

A fantastic article, well written and informative. But Google does not come out looking any better than before. The only new excuse presented was that Google was eager to establish an internal censored presence, because China’s firewall made their external service seem slow. This is an even less compelling excuse than the original BS about “working within the system for change”.

And the details about how they implemented the censorship is even more damning. Rather than just passively obeying some sort of blacklist, they (as with all Chinese companies) must actively and individually determine which sites and pages to censor, based on an adherence to general ideas put forth as unacceptable by the Chinese government.

By working within the system, actively and eagerly, they lend moral support to it, and implicitly tell every Chinese internet user that their government’s policy of thought control is fine by Google.

Mousky (user link) says:

Re: Nothing new or exonerating here

“And the details about how they implemented the censorship is even more damning. Rather than just passively obeying some sort of blacklist, they (as with all Chinese companies) must actively and individually determine which sites and pages to censor, based on an adherence to general ideas put forth as unacceptable by the Chinese government.”

From the article:

“So Google’s engineers hit on a high-tech solution. They set up a computer inside China and programmed it to try to access Web sites outside the country, one after another. If a site was blocked by the firewall, it meant the government regarded it as illicit — so it became part of Google’s blacklist.”

Adinobro (profile) says:

What is free speach?

The thing I don’t get is people trashing China for suppressing free speech in one second and then in the next second lobby the government to pass laws to force ISPs to filter porn.

If they do it’s suppressing free speech. If we do it then it’s supporting the community?

They make companies self censor themselves. We have the DMCA, EULA and NDA, which makes it illegal to share censored information.

Maybe I’m just becoming jaded but to me it looks like in the end the results will be the same in both countries with one country controlling information through overly complex laws (to cover all the fringe cases) and the other controlling information through proverbs.

In other words the west is yet again doing something the western way (more laws) and the east is yet again doing something the eastern way (philosophy). The west doesn’t understand how to operate without laws that govern what can and can’t be done (and manipulated) so they yell and scream. The east points at the west and says what’s the big deal you do the same thing but call it something else. Then the lectures and journalists that want grant money, fame, a story or publicity try and make it into a big deal for their own ends. The world goes on and no one cares.

another number says:

Re: What is free speach?

Our governments censorship bans things like tubgirl and goatse from children, those are things that scar people much older than 18, a 4 year old seeing somthing like that would be warped for the rest of their life. pane three, pillow.jpg, the list goes on, but the point is that children need to be allowed to be children, things like that take away their innocence. that is what you are saying our government is wrong for doing? the problem with the chinese government is not that they simply say you should not see that, they imprison you for it. things like praising democracy for its pluses and saying something like our chinese gov’t is a little too strict should not be something that lands you in prison. that is extreme censorship, and we have checks and balances that keep things like that from happening on a large scale. yes of course it will happen there are always some cases sure. there is a very large gray line on censorship, I think that our gov’t stays on the proper side, while they step on some toes every now and again, it is necessary to see where the line is. the chinese government goes quite a few steps on the other side. /rant

I disagree with many things our government does, and the things that Bush does. but it is the best system we have, yes 8 years can really ruin a nation, but at least we get to replace him and hope we pick a little better next time. although I dislike the president he is finally trying to turn a few things around. while he has screwed up more than is possible to fix, he is slowing down the hole digging we are doing. he will only be in office for two more years, and martial law, although possible is highly unlikely. and with martial law, yes censorship is allowed, but again there are still come checks and blances like how long it can last and whatnot. I am starting to get into a gray area of our laws, as I have not read everything that is allowed and disallowed with the combination of the patriot act and martial law together. but it is better than China’s martian law (sealab reference which may incriminate some of my rant, but I felt it necessary 😉

A. L. Flanagan (profile) says:

Re: What is free speach?

>>The thing I don’t get is people trashing China for suppressing free speech in one second and then in the next second lobby the government to pass laws to force ISPs to filter porn.

Many, many people are afraid of free speech — yes, even here in the USA. Watch all the hand-wringing over porn, anonymous posting, “pirate” content. These people are dangerous and threaten your most fundamental right, the one without which all other rights are vulnerable.

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