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Networking, Chinese style

There's an old joke about a person who sent a letter to an acquantaince in China. The writer ended his letter with "I hope this letter makes it past the censors." When the letter arrived, the last sentence was crossed out and, in red lettering, somebody had written "There are no censors in the People's Republic of China."

Writing in Slate, Tim Wu profiles China's efforts to ensure there are no censors on the Internet as well:

The Web was conceived as one global medium, by its nature open and free. But countries like China are pushing hard to divide that global network into a system of Balkanized national networks. Censorship of the sort Microsoft acceded to is grabbing headlines, but the more important restrictive measures are taking place quietly--and quietly succeeding.

Wu outlines ways in which the Chinese government both censors and manages 'net technology -- from chatrooms to blogs to search engines to wireless networks -- so that a central authority -- say, a government -- can ensure that computer networks aren't used for revolutionary activity.

Wu paints a frightening picture, particularly when one considers China's likely market dominance in the coming century. What if China could insist not merely that Chinese networking equipment and programs be censored within China, but also that, in the interest of free markets, all technology nationwide be made compatible with the Chinese standards for registration and control?

What if other governments, of varying autocratic bents, successfully licensed or duplicated these Chinese-mandated technologies and, as Wu puts it, "balkanize" the Internet?

A sobering thought indeed.

Pennywit usually forecasts global doom and gloom from Pennywit.com.

Comments (6)

Wouldn't work. Such govern... (Below threshold)

Wouldn't work. Such governments could isolate their own people from the Internet, while using modified Internet technologies, but the Internet routes around censorship. Those who choose to remain uncensored will do so, easily. In fact, the Internet could be utterly recreated even by people within dictatorships, so long as they have a way to connect their computer to a phone line. All you have to do is have two nodes that agree on addressing and naming, and are willing to relay.

Admittedly, this would degrade the Internet from its current universal, broadband implementation, but information wants to be free, and these limited-connectivity, limited-bandwidth networks would eventually put out a tendril that would hit the free Internet, and then the censorship wall is breached. It would die the death of a million cuts.

The Internet is the ideal communications tool for revolutionaries, subversives and terrorists: it cannot be blocked without eliminating computers, or all methods of physically connecting two sites (phones, satellite dishes, cable TV, power lines, spread spectrum broadcast bandwidth (would require broadband jamming)), or both.

I'm sure the FEC is taking ... (Below threshold)

I'm sure the FEC is taking notes.

Here's an example of how so... (Below threshold)

Here's an example of how some of this censorship works here. I've noticed sometimes they'll lock down the internet so that you can only access websites that are chinese. This happened a few weeks ago, only to a few IP addresses, only lasted an hour or so (probably a test), and you could only access websites in China and chinese sites in other countries (such as their embassy sites). It was very frustrating. Imagine if they did it country-wide for all access all of the time. Of course, we can always send messages via cell phones. I wonder if they're trying to do anything about that.

Of course, we can always... (Below threshold)

Of course, we can always send messages via cell phones. I wonder if they're trying to do anything about that.

They've been trying.

What if other governments, of varying autocratic bents, successfully licensed or duplicated these Chinese-mandated technologies and, as Wu puts it, "balkanize" the Internet?

I don't think this will happen for many reasons, not least of which being that the PRC gov't has not been very successful with their censorship. The Chinese use of technology for dissident activities is quite widespread, especially with cellphones. Falun Gong has been in China for many years, prospering to include over 100 million followers despite the harsh government crackdown (They even hijack tv stations to get their message out). And as anyone who participates in or studies illegal activities on the internet knows, the government is always behind the technology (P2P anyone?). The amount of Chinese people with cellphones outnumbers the entire U.S. population by about 70 million, and that number is growing rapidly. The number of Chinese online is growing at a slightly slower rate. As the government there tries to crackdown, the users become smarter and more numerous. There are basically two ways this can go:

A) China institutes some sort of massive censorship control over the internet, blocking virtually any sites outside of China, as well as monitoring the billions and billions of text messages sent everyday, and arresting or intimidating users who break their rules (not to mention dealing with the millions of cheap, disposable, and untracable cellphones in use), and that is a lot.

B) As technology and the average Chinese person's knowledge of it continues to grow and spread, the people will have so much information and communication at their disposal that they will demand wider and more extensive democratic reforms. This of course will be rocky at first, but could indeed happen.

Another, very large reason I believe the latter is more likely is that the capitalist reforms of the past 15 years in China have seen a concomitant rise in corruption among CCP officials (already notoriously corrupt). Somewhere between 1/4 and 1/3 of the (new)rich in China are CCP members, and the last thing they want is to slow down the capitalist juggernaut that keeps the yuan rolling in. And it is the capitalist reforms that have inevitably brought in techological advances in communication. One cannot exist without the other. As more and more CCP members worry more about making money and less about controlling the citizenry, you will see these feeble attempts at censorship fizzle, and a more democratic China will arise. IMHO China will be a very different country in 10 years, and it is very doubtful that they will usher in a balkanization of the internet. We have to worry about them, sure, but only because they are poised to kick our asses on the open market (when will Bush put some real pressure on the Chinese to float the yuan?).

Sorry, wrong link. <a href... (Below threshold)

Sorry, wrong link. Here's the cellphone link

In Communist countries the ... (Below threshold)

In Communist countries the government IS the revolution. Anyone opposing the governnment is considered COUNTERrevolutionaries. Please go re-read Geroge Orwell's 1984 for a better understanding of how this works.






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