Online Censorship: Controlled by the Fuzzy Line

by JenniferCobb on 12/01/2011

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Online censorship in repressive countries is a complex and often dangerous cat and mouse game, played in the context of a new digital co-dependence.  Most countries, even repressive ones, depend increasingly on the Internet as an engine of economic growth and have a vested interest in building a thriving online space. At the same time, this space is inimical to their need to control speech.   As a recent research paper from Denmark points out, this tension plays out in a variety of nuanced forms.

In the study, the researchers spent several months in an anonymous “digitally nascent state” with less than 30% Internet penetration. In this country, the government actively blocks Internet sites and conversations and monitors users, providers and hosts.   At the same time, the government has initiated policies to develop what they hope will be a robust “national Internet space.”  These clearly conflicting goals have created a national online space that is largely devoid of content.  As the researchers heard repeatedly, “It is simply empty.  There is nothing there.”

The reason it is empty is primarily a result of uncertainty.  For most people in the country, the concept of “blocking” is fairly abstract, confusing and hard to understand.  Is a site actively being blocked, or is it temporarily down for technical reasons? Why do I have access to a site and my relative in another part of the country reports it as blocked?  Is the site truly blocked or is this an ad hoc decision made by my provider?  Many people are only beginning to understand how to ask these questions, much less answer them in any consistent way.

In this particular country, and in many others with censorship regimes, the uncertainty of the online censorship experience is layered with preexisting cultural inclinations to shelter one’s thoughts and hoard information.  In cultures where speech is not free, information is a premium asset and less likely to be shared openly.  This attitude is carried over into the Internet domain.  In this paper, people reported a reluctance to post even simple personal photos and uncontroversial content due to a mistrust not of the government primarily, but of the Internet audience.  There was a sense that this audience would steal or misuse their personal images and information.  The generalized distrust endemic to the society naturally made its way to the Internet culture.

The outcome is an impoverished national Internet space where neither controversial nor uncontroversial information is posted regularly.  This leads the authors of the study to conclude that one of the primary strategies people use in a censored internet is self-censorship.  Even bloggers who posted on non-political topics were very careful about their content.  One person reported, “I check every day, you know we are afraid of getting blocked again.  We don’t know why we get blocked last time, but it can always happen.”  Self-censorship also comes with an attendant fear of success.  As a blog or group of bloggers becomes successful, they attract more traffic. This then makes them a target for the government and the fear of getting shut down or targeted directly rises.

One interesting twist in this paper was the finding that a common strategy used by the more political contributors was an aggressive use of transparency.  Being watched is a fact of life.  These contributors did not believe that there was any way to be truly anonymous on the Internet and attempting to be so could lead to more trouble.  One reported, “I wouldn’t go get a BlackBerry.  I could go down the street and get one, but I wouldn’t because they [the government] can’t crack that encryption and they would just get suspicious.  Because they listen to me and listen to me and then suddenly I am encrypting and that means I really saying something they don’t want me to.”

Transparency as a strategy does not mean that there is not a population of people who use a variety of workarounds to access blocked content.  The more technically savvy know how to use proxy servers and anonymizers to get to controversial sites.  Others reach out to people in their social circles who have access either through technical know-how or because they live where content is not blocked.  These contacts often copy information and disseminate it via email.

One of the strongest messages in this report is that the government’s primary tool in the battle for control of the Internet is uncertainty.  People don’t know from one day to the next what will be blocked and why.  In that context, the appeal of robust posting and engagement online drops dramatically.

Uncertainty continues to be a go-to tool even for more sophisticated censorship regimes.  In China, where the Internet penetration is also around 30%, uncertainty is a powerful control mechanism.  In a recent New York Times article, a researcher at the China Media Project at Hong Kong University, underscores this point, “The government’s primary means of control is the fuzzy line.  No one ever knows exactly where the line is.  The control apparatus is built on uncertainty and self-censorship, on creating this atmosphere of fear.”

The social impact of Internet censorship is that the people and their government are locked in a counter-productive tug of war.  The result is a watered-down, content-poor official Internet and a rich and engaged “black market” Internet that only a subset of the population can access.  However, this is hardly the end game.

In China, humor is offering an interesting way forward.  For example, President  Hu Jintao often uses the word “harmony” to indicate social stability.  Bloggers now say they have “been harmonized” to mean they have been censored.  Hu Yong, a professor at Peking University, says, “Despite these restrictions – or precisely because of them – the Internet is flourishing as the wittiest space in China.  It forces people to invent indirect ways to get their meaning across, and humor works as a natural form of encryption.”  It is a safe bet that the Chinese government doesn’t get the joke, but let’s hope the last laugh is in the hands of those working for a free and unfettered Internet, everywhere.    Self-censorship is, in the end, no laughing matter.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Warner Review February 11, 2012 at 2:22 pm

Web owners across the world have to speak up in opposition to these new restrictions on our online freedoms. Once these laws are approved, our way of life will never be the same again.

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