The Internet-as-Guarantor-of-Freedom Myth

It’s a topic we’ve discussed a lot, but one that won’t go away, especially with the Shi Tao verdict, which hinged on information supplied to China’s secret police by Yahoo.

There are a lot of people who maintain that despite the arrests, the crackdowns, the growing list of forbidden words and the mandatory site registrations, the Interent will still lead China toward openness, greater awareness and, eventually, democracy. I still believe that myself, because I’ve seen how much a difference the Internet has made when it comes to spreading news throughout China like wiodfire. At least, I think I still believe it.

This disturbing article, however, rains heavily on the Chinese Internet’s parade, and leaves me wondering whether the Party might eventually be able to shape it into a docile, fully controllable tool.

So much for the promise that the internet would liberate the oppressed. This theory was most clearly formulated in 1999 by the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. In his book The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Friedman argues that two great democratising forces – global communications and global finance – will sweep away any regime which is not open, transparent and democratic.

“Thanks to satellite dishes, the internet and television,” he asserts, “we can now see through, hear through and look through almost every conceivable wall. … no one owns the internet, it is totally decentralised, no one can turn it off … China’s going to have a free press … Oh, China’s leaders don’t know it yet, but they are being pushed straight in that direction.” The same thing, he claims, is happening all over the world. In Iran he saw people ogling Baywatch on illegal satellite dishes. As a result, he claims, “within a few years, every citizen of the world will be able to comparison shop between his own … government and the one next door”.

He is partly right. The internet at least has helped to promote revolutions of varying degrees of authenticity in Serbia, Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Argentina and Bolivia. But the flaw in Friedman’s theory is that he forgets the intermediaries. The technology which runs the internet did not sprout from the ground. It is provided by people with a commercial interest in its development. Their interest will favour freedom in some places and control in others. And they can and do turn it off.

In 2002 Yahoo! signed the Chinese government’s pledge of “self-regulation”: it promised not to allow “pernicious information that may jeopardise state security” to be posted. Last year Google published a statement admitting that it would not be showing links to material banned by the authorities on computers stationed in China. If Chinese users of Microsoft’s internet service MSN try to send a message containing the words “democracy”, “liberty” or “human rights”, they are warned that “This message includes forbidden language. Please delete the prohibited expression.”

A study earlier this year by a group of scholars called the OpenNet Initiative revealed what no one had thought possible: that the Chinese government is succeeding in censoring the net. Its most powerful tool is its control of the routers – the devices through which data is moved from one place to another. With the right filtering systems, these routers can block messages containing forbidden words. Human-rights groups allege that western corporations – in particular Cisco Systems – have provided the technology and the expertise. Cisco is repeatedly cited by Thomas Friedman as one of the facilitators of his global revolution.

“We had the dream that the internet would free the world, that all the dictatorships would collapse,” says Julien Pain of Reporters Without Borders. “We see it was just a dream.”

The article also explores how moguls like Rupert Murdoch accommodate the CCP’s censorship machine, as do (even worse) the multinational advertisers trying to reach consumers in China:

In 1994 he [Murdoch] dropped BBC world news from his Star satellite feeds after it broadcast an unflattering portrait of Mao Zedong. In 1997 he ordered his publishing house HarperCollins to drop a book by Chris Patten, the former governor of Hong Kong. He slagged off the Dalai Lama and his son James attacked the dissident cult Falun Gong. His grovelling paid off, and in 2002 he was able to start broadcasting into Guangdong. “We won’t do programmes that are offensive in China,” Murdoch’s spokesman Wang Yukui admitted. “If you call this self-censorship then of course we’re doing a kind of self-censorship.”

This is creepy. So we’ll fill their airwaves with mindless crap and strip out anything even potentially controversial to make some bucks. As the writer lamentably concludes, “So instead of democracy we get Baywatch.”

The Discussion: 9 Comments

Not “we.” Not me and not you. Murdoch and the rest of the money grubbing piggies will grovel to any tyrant for the privilege of making a few more bucks. Millions, or hundreds of millions may suffer, but as long as Sir Rupert makes a penny a sufferer, he’s good with that.

I support capitalism, hell, I am a business owner and a capitalist running dog myself.

But this kind of behavior gives freedom a bad name. How can a Chinese person push for western-style reform when the greatest practitioners of the art of capitalism go hand in glove with their corrupt masters?

Ironic that freedom of the press in the west has been co-opted by the tyrants to keep China enslaved.

Was it Lenin who made the remark about the capitalist selling him the rope with which he would hang them?

It might happen. Certainly it will hang others.

Then again, once the foot is in the door, who knows what might happen? Some people might start realizing just how they are being manipulated.

We’ll see.

September 14, 2005 @ 7:14 pm | Comment

Corporation have never been the ones to further democracy of any kind of freedoms. They are set up for profit and that is what they do. I saw democracy born in Taiwan in the 80’s, not so long ago, the people of a country have to want it, you can’t force it on them.

September 14, 2005 @ 9:02 pm | Comment

The Chinese people already know they are being manipulated, but they aren’t going to be outraged enough to do anything about it as long as the manipulators are Chinese rather than foreigners.

September 14, 2005 @ 11:00 pm | Comment

Daily linklets 15th September

* In defence of Hong Kong Disneyland…just don’t wash your hands in the bathroom sinks. * Bloggers are used to being called non-mainstream media (indeed many revel in that description). Now Hong Kong’s Government has labelled magazines as non-mainstre…

September 14, 2005 @ 11:34 pm | Comment

Huh? Do I not recall an aritcle blasting Murdoch for “spoiling the whole pot” of China’s market, because he kept breaking rules and selling “unauthorized” material to local studios? Gimme some time to look for it.

A whole bunch of other companies were pissed that Murdoch would disobey the CCP. And everyone else gets to be pissed at him for obeying the CCP.

September 15, 2005 @ 2:00 am | Comment

Ah, here’s a version of the article here:

It doesn’t seem to have the virtol of the one I read.

September 15, 2005 @ 2:02 am | Comment

Honestly speaking, in the end I don’t think China will be able to pull off the trick, of controlling the Internet, mainly for 2 reasons:

1. It doesn’t take the words “democracy”, “human rights” … etc. to make people aware of what is going on in society. It is tales, like on this and other numerous blogs, about pollution, peasant uprisings, corruption … that will increase the pressure on the kettle from the inside out and no router, from whichever vendor, will be able to block out all of that content.

2. It is the Chinese language itself that induces me to believe that no one will be able to control all unwanted content.
Let’s make the comparison to English. I noticed several times in the last weeks, in this blog, that when the “democracy” word came up, it was transformed into “democr@cy”, I guess exactly for the purpose of not having access to the article blocked in China.
Now, I am still assuming that most Chinese use the chinese (written) language to communicate inside China and on the Internet. The word democracy then would consist of 2 characters: min + zhu. If we take analogy on what we do in English, i.e replacing an “a” with an “@” or an “i” with a “1”, Chinese could come up with a plethora of variations on characters that sound like min and zhu, but put together have an entirely different meaning than “democracy”. It would only take some time to spread the convention on this kind of use of certain words in the Internet community, and eventually certain combinations would get blocked, but the Chinese writing system inherently would make it a hell of a job, if not virtually impossible, to regulate all content.

September 15, 2005 @ 5:09 am | Comment

Internet: The Great Democratizer

An article from The Guardian entitled ‘Thanks to corporations, instead of democracy we get Baywatch” shows how the internet has the potential to be a democratizing force, but one that can be and is manipulated by the Chinese government. (Hat Tip: Pek…

September 15, 2005 @ 6:39 am | Comment

There is a more basic problem: 99% of Chinese are politically apathetic. You could “unblock” the entire interent and it probably wouldn’t make much of a dent, anyway. Look at Chinese who come to the US: they have complete access to information about what is going on in China, etc. How many of them are chanting for democracy and the fall of the CCP? Virtually none.

The way people think has to change before anything else will change. If you give most people access to information, it doesn’t really matter. They won’t take advantage of it — at least not in ways you think they would or should. Freedom of the press (which China desperately needs) is only the first step in this process. But you need to look at how that freedom would actually be used (or not used). Look at how docile the press is in the US (generally speaking) in a free environment. Ok, now give China “freedom” and multiply that times 10 for various cultural and historical reasons…

My point: “the internet will bring democracy” is the usual Western wishful thinking whether the internet is censored or not. However, it would be better if it were not.

September 15, 2005 @ 7:21 am | Comment

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