It’s July 1, and in China the ominous deadline to implement the Green Dam/Youth Escort internet filtering software has been postponed, to much rejoicing by Internet users in the country.
To outsiders, this must seem quite puzzling. Why would China’s “totalitarian” system need to back down on this?
This should be seen as a case study on how the complexities of China’s decision system is much more nuanced than what a “Communist” regime would suggest, and the role of citizen deliberation in a new, upwardly mobile, aspirational, IT-savvy China.
While the outside world sees the PRC government in absolute control, in reality the heavy handed, top down authoritarian system rides on a delicate balance of, bottom up public consent that supports the state’s legitimacy.
Here’s why Green Dam illustrates this quite well.
China’s Internet filtering is by far the most advanced in the world in terms of precision and scale. But until now, it happened in the “cloud,” in far off intangible spaces through two main vehicles:
- One is through massive domestic Web site content regulation through revokable Internet Content Provider licenses (ICP). Operators have to self-censor through technical or human means to please the authorities regarding general guidelines on taboo topics. Keywords are banned and discussion topics are forbidden. In some cases, explicit timely edicts are required, such as for significant June anniversaries, sensitive political meetings (People’s Congress) or poor construction standards in Sichuan earthquake zones. Even with these, China’s netizens have come up with clever tricks and puns to get around many of these automated filtering systems.
- The other is the Great Firewall, the blocking of what foreign Web sites China users can surf. The implementation is clever, in that restrictions show up as technical errors (connection reset, site not found/unreachable) and curb behavior through uncertainty and doubt about a site’s reach-ability, rather than fear. You don’t know whether it’s the Internet acting flaky, or whether a site is actually being filtered. Tech-savvy users can trivially circumvent this.
But you don’t need perfect censorship to have effective censorship. Both these systems do quite well for the PRC government in keeping the 3T1F topics outside the mainstream, and ensuring that the government is not embarrassed by reporting on its incompetence.
The key, here is that both the domestic and international filtering activities happened in the cloud, the ether, the machines that comprise the Internet. It wasn’t in your home and it didn’t intrude beyond the cable to your desk.
Green Dam suddenly put the specter of restriction, surveillance and control in your home.
With that one stroke, which probably seemed like the next logical innocuous extension of the censorship regime for PRC bureaucrats, the government took the big miscalculation of crossing into the the private space, and the personal property of China’s citizens. And that’s where the outrage came.
This was the camel’s nose into the private tent of Internet users. A poll on China’s major sites (Sina, Netease, et al) all showed over 3/4 of respondents said Green Dam was not necessary or a bad idea.
(NB: China is not the first or the only government wanting to censor Internet traffic for content. Australia’s Clean Feed proposal to covertly filter out sites at the ISP level has been under fire from their netizens, and was unceremoniously put on hiatus as well. Most public schools and libraries in the United States implement content filtering at some level. This is not a uniquely China issue.)
What the authorities in China didn’t realize was how serious that breach of boundary would be.
I knew it was going to be a tough road for Green Dam when it appeared the MIIT initiative was not a unified effort. Before leaving for my travels, I did commentaries with the Associated Press, Deutsche Welle, Al Jazeera and others, making the point that even China’s official news outlets were openly questioning Green Dam’s legitimacy. The new Global Times newspaper, which has been rather frank about other issues, led off with serious questions about the software’s safety.
Then came the big one.
China Daily, the official mouthpiece of the government, was publishing criticisms of Green Dam shortly after it was announced, even publishing Photoshop’ed illustrations of netizens mocking the system. (“Outrage over bid to tame Web“, China Daily, June 18, 2009)
One picture it included with the article was a “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” multiple choice question describing Green Dam as “spyware” with “systemic flaws” that could be “exploited by hackers.” Another cartoon shows a gray hand of censorship coming from the computer screen and stiff-arming a computer user in the face.
It was clear at this point, the Green Dam initiative was from a smaller portion of the PRC bureaucracy, and not from the highest levels. China Daily would have never published something so critical if it was of the highest-level of agenda pushing.
China’s netizens were speaking, and the media and government were taking notice (and with higher ups looking the other way). So while this was not democracy in action, it certainly was something in action.
At TEDxShanghai last month, I described the phenomenon of Wikipedia and Twitter forming the basis of a new online commons where global netizens come to share and reinforce memes across geographic and social boundaries (SlideShare presentation). For years, enthusiastic faith-based technology enthusiasts hoped the Internet would bring democracy to any place it touched. This has been spectacularly elusive. On the flipside, some viewed the new Web 2.0 social revolution as “socialist”, “collectivist” and at worst, Maoist. That’s been inaccurate as well.
Instead, I describe the new borderless, socially agile, activist associations that crop up on the Internet as a new system of ‘deliberative adhocracy’. Alvin Toffler, and later Cory Doctorow, used adhocracy to describe a new form of rule based ephemeral associations that “capture opportunities, solve problems, and get results.” (Waterman)
Whether it’s as massive as #IranElection to bring global awareness to its politics, or as small as #MotrinMoms to discuss outrage at an insulting advertisement, we now have an online information commons (Twitter) and knowledge commons (Wikipedia) that supports a space for the new distributed Zeitgeist. In China, obviously there are other analogs (Twitter clone Fanfou, Baidu Baike, BBS forums, et al.) but the effect is the same. To see deliberative adhocracy in action look no further than the Human Flesh Search Engine that metes out social justice in the absence of a strong rule of law in China.
Readers familiar with my book will know I described how a Wikipedia Revolution changed forever how we deal with free access to knowledge and its production. I will however, be quite Burke-ian in my pronouncement about the Internet’s effect on China.
Revolutions are sudden overthrows and disruptive repudiations of the status quo. China has a terrible modern history with revolutions, with more of them going bad than good. The rule law is sometimes described as when “reason trumps politics.” To China’s authorities, the Internet is being used in a deliberative process that fulfills that role. It is not perfect, nor prevalent enough to ensure social justice on a large scale. However, it is a huge step forward for a country that is convinced that after a century of turmoil, that any step must take safety and efficiency into account.
The hiatus for Green Dam, is the standard face-saving way for the government to back down. There is a good possibility it may come back in another form, watered down or otherwise. But for now, China’s netizens are having their day.