Chinese censorship and the infoglut

Yesterday, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote about his experiments in testing Chinese censorship of the internet. (See In China It’s ******* vs. Netizens, June 20, 2006, subscription required.) Kristof started two Chinese-language blogs and filled them with politically charged postings. He was surprised that the posts were quickly available online, with only an occasional — and apparently automated, I would think — substitution of asterisks for certain Chinese characters.

Commenting on the quick availability of his blogs, Kristof observes that it’s impossible for China’s 30,000 censors to keep up with 120 million Chinese netizens. This might be correct: the sheer quantity of internet information makes absolute control pretty much impossible. But Kristof further concludes that “the Web is beginning to assume the watchdog role filled by the news media in freer countries.” As Ethan Leib notes at PrawfsBlawg, he’s not as optimistic as Kristof, and I agree. The fact that Kristof’s postings went online mostly unscathed likely says more about the ineffectiveness of filtering programs than about governmental permissiveness. Getting things on the web and keeping them there are not the same.

To his credit, Kristof recognized that his postings might not last long, predicting that “[w]hen State Security reads this, it may finally order my blogs closed.” His prediction was proven correct, and quickly. Though the blogs were online last night, when I checked this afternoon they were gone. One, http://jisidao.blog.sohu.com/, now apparently says that the user does not exist. (Caveat: I don’t read Chinese and used Babelfish to translate.) The other, http://blog.sina.com.cn/u/1238333873, now redirects the user to the main page at http://blog.sina.com.cn/main/. Almost certainly it was humans — and not programs — that removed the sites. Automated and human censorship in China apparently work hand in hand.

Kristof’s observations do contain some seeds of optimism that Chinese censorship can be circumvented by technological and human countermeasures. He writes that young people use proxy software to reach forbidden sites and Skype to make phone calls. He also writes about Chinese blogger Li Xinde, “who travels around China with his laptop, reporting on corruption and human-rights abuses.” Xinde’s sites are closed down constantly, but “the moment a site is censored he replaces it with a new one.” Xinde uses an overseas site, http://www.lixinde.com, to inform readers of the best current internet address.

Nonetheless, I have to wonder how many Chinese citizens engage in these activities or risk imprisonment to blog about politically charged subjects. Even though automated and human censorship might be circumvented by technological and human countermeasures, the will to take such risks must exist as well. As Ethan Leib notes, “it is hard to blog from a Chinese prison.” How does one counteract fear?

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