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.

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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 May 2016 @ 3:31am

    Sounds a lot like the mass surveillance in the US, too. People know all of their communications are being spied upon, so they self-censor "just in case."

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 May 2016 @ 3:57am

    When in doubt, cut it out!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 May 2016 @ 6:23am

    yep. blueprint for the new u.s.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 May 2016 @ 6:32am

    considering how the US, UK, France and other western countries are putting or have put in place worse surveillance and censorship than China and others, it would maybe better to keep off this subject!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 May 2016 @ 7:00am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Ninja (profile), 4 May 2016 @ 7:38am

      Re: Same pattern seen in copyright enforcement

      My first thought when I finished reading. Of course, copyright is merely a 'nice' name for a censorship tool so it would be expected. It seems the Chinese learned well from the US!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Max (profile), 4 May 2016 @ 9:33am

    Well, that's one way to look at it. Another one might be that since times immemorial every single ruler with any power worth a damn chose to follow the policy "I don't care what I said, do anything that pisses me off and I'll make sure you'll regret it!"

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Median Wilfred, 4 May 2016 @ 9:34am

    "One eye open, one eye shut"

    James Fallows observed this at least 5 years ago.

    Network World interview where Fallows calls it "one eye open, one eye shut". The real Fallows article, which is worth a read is in The Atlantic.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    jameshogg (profile), 4 May 2016 @ 11:53am

    Also known as "Going Postal". Nick Cohen's brilliant book on censorship "You Can't Read This Book" mentions it when describing the phenomenon of never knowing you're safe with what you speak.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    morganwick (profile), 4 May 2016 @ 11:14pm

    Or they could just be incompetent, rather than brilliant censorship masterminds.

    90% of the time that's probably the case.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 May 2016 @ 2:04am

    The same could be argued for fair use. It's poorly defined which encourages more censorship.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    crade (profile), 5 May 2016 @ 10:38am

    It's kind of a reverse streisand effect. The Gov't only actually wants to censor specific things. The constant rules are just a smoke screen to avoid drawing attention to the things they actually want to censor. The vagueness ensures the specific cases never have to worry about breaking their own rules, which would also draw attention.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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