from the power-play dept
And, in many ways, it works quite well in China. Yes, sophisticated users know how to use VPNs and proxies and to get around the blocks, but many people do not. But something interesting is happening in China right now, as one of the largest and most successful internet companies there appears to be challenging the censorship regime. First, it's important to recognize that in China, one subject that is absolutely, without question, censored, is anything relating to the Tiananmen Square protests and crackdown of 1989. On the internet in China, it's as if the event never happened. People have tried workarounds, using euphemisms and wordplay, but eventually those get disappeared down the memory hole too. There was even that time the censors banned the term "big yellow duck," after people replaced the famous tanks in the "tank man" photo with giant rubber ducks:
This is a direct & blatant refusal to play by the rules. Baidu has a lot of power behind the scenes, but even then, this looks like treason.— Clay Shirky (@cshirky) May 6, 2016
This will probably end soon - hearing from friends in Beijing that some searches are censored again - but it will cause months of trouble.— Clay Shirky (@cshirky) May 6, 2016
Young, educated Chinese are so used to cat and mouse censorship that when they see something like this, they screenshot immediately.— Clay Shirky (@cshirky) May 6, 2016
At a conservative guess, there've been a billion screenshots taken of various banned images, jokes, and memes during the last day.— Clay Shirky (@cshirky) May 6, 2016
The brief dropping of the censorship appears to be (again, Shirky notes no one knows for sure -- but many people seem to believe) Baidu trying to let the Chinese government know that it has become powerful enough to make trouble for the government, so it's not just a one way street in terms of who holds the power. Of course, that seems like an incredibly risky move to make if you really don't have enough power to stand up to the government.
We may never know all the details of what's going on, but it's a brief, if fascinating, view into some of what's going on in China today with the Great Firewall, and the increasing power of some of its most successful companies. But it's also a reminder of why we should be so thankful for strong intermediary liability protections in the US, and how not having such protections is a sure path to censorship.