Why The Growing Unpredictability Of China's Censorship Is A Feature, Not A Bug

from the watch-your-step dept

Over the years, Techdirt has been trying to keep up with the deepening censorship in China, as more and more ways are found by the authorities to keep online users in check. Given the political situation there, that’s hardly a surprise, but what is strange is the following, reported by Tech In Asia:

China’s internet censors have been busy recently. Last week we saw the uptight folks at SAPPRFT [State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, China’s main censorship body] take down Papi Jiang, a viral video comedian of sorts who had even attracted VC funding, over a few curse words. We also saw Apple?s online books and movies platforms get taken offline, reportedly thanks to SAPPRFT’s sudden demands.

It’s all very depressing, but it also highlights one of the most effective aspects of China’s online censorship regime: it?s totally unpredictable.

Naïvely, you might think that the Chinese government would want to establish very clear lines in the sand that its citizens must not, under any circumstances, cross. But the Tech In Asia post perceptively points that unpredictability has a big advantage, using the following analogy:

Imagine being near a steep cliff. During the day, when you can see clearly, you might walk right up to the edge to take in the view. But at night or during a thick fog, you’re probably going to steer well clear of the cliff’s edge to ensure that you don?t accidentally misjudge where you are and tumble to your death.

Here’s how that works out for censorship:

China’s vaguely-defined web content rules and inconsistent censorship enforcement work the same way as the fog near a cliff: since people can’t see exactly where the edge is, they’re more likely to stay far away from it, just in case. There’s no toeing the line, because nobody knows exactly where the line is. So instead of pushing the envelope, many people choose to censor themselves.

In order to ensure that margin of safety, people will tend to censor themselves more than is necessary according to the stated rules. If the line in the sand were well defined, they could step right up to it, fairly secure that they will be safe provided they don’t cross. In effect, by introducing an unnerving element of uncertainty into its actions, China obtains a more stringent self-censorship on the part of its citizens than it would from formally applying well-defined rules through official channels.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+

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Comments on “Why The Growing Unpredictability Of China's Censorship Is A Feature, Not A Bug”

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12 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Same pattern seen in copyright enforcement

We saw the same thing in the US with some of the anti-(time/place)shifting suits (e.g. Aero) where the plaintiffs’ main argument was that the defendants were clearly trying to toe right up to the line, and that was somehow proof that they were actually over the line and therefore not complying with the law. Evidence of an attempt to technically comply was used as evidence of non-compliance.

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