A free market in censorship

Readers of this blog will be aware of my feelings towards the current Chinese government and their attitude towards suppression of free speech. I do, however, have to give them credit; they have created quite the free market in online censorship tools:

King's dabble in Internet entrepreneurialism has shown that Chinese censorship relies more heavily than was known on automatic filtering that holds posts back for human review before they appear online. The researchers also uncovered evidence that China’s vast censorship system is underpinned by a surprisingly vibrant, capitalistic market where companies compete to offer better censorship technology and services.
If you're running an online business in China, especially if you intend to offer per-user accounts, you have no option but to co-operate with one of the approved businesses which will help you conform to the requirements of the Chinese government in censoring posts, providing information on user identity on demand etc. An object lesson in this came from ex-head of Yahoo!, Jerry Yang when he testified to Congress in 2007 regarding the arrest of journalist Shi Tao following Yahoo! turning over Tao's identity to Chinese officials:
In February, 2006, Yahoo's Callahan had testified that Yahoo did not know why Chinese officials wanted information on Tao. But several months later, a U.S. advocacy group for religious and political prisoners in China published translations of documents sent to Yahoo from Chinese officials stating that Tao was suspected of divulging state secrets. "What those documents say is that, at the very least, Yahoo's Beijing office knew what crimes were being investigated when they were approached by law enforcement in China," says Joshua Rosenzweig
You have to feel at least a little sorry for Yang, who was carried along on a wave on enthusiasm about investment in China without, presumably, being informed of what Yahoo! would be obliged to do for the Chinese government in return. Of course, poor Shi Tao is the one who really got it in the shorts.

But back to modern online business in China. If (heaven forbid) this censorship system was implemented in the UK I can imagine a new body, say the "Online Identity Check Executive", issuing reams of degrees about how censorship should be conducted, appropriate regulations, "best practice" advice and an "Approved Code of Practice" booklet issued annually and consuming several inches of shelf space. The instinct for bureaucrats is to control finer and finer details in order to increase the need for their organization. That makes it all the more remarkable that in China how you satisfy the government is really up to you, and there's an enthusiastic market in tools, systems and people to help you maximise your bang per yuan in your censorship systems:

Companies are free to run their censorship operations mostly as they wish, as long as they don’t allow the wrong kind of speech to flourish. That creates an incentive to find ways to censor more effectively so as to minimize the impact on profitability.
Interestingly, "the wrong kind of speech" seems to focus more on collective action than on isolated "the system sucks" speech. The Chinese government are clearly terrified of an organized rebellion, along the lines of 1989's Tiananmen Square action but more coherent and better planned. The article also notes the censorship rate: about 2 censors per 50,000 users seems to be the minimum for effective censorship assuming the use of reasonably effective tools to pre-screen posts for censor review.

So a certain grudging admiration for the Chinese government in making a blatantly capitalistic approach to maximising the effect of their censorship. Of course, the companies actually providing these tools are enabling the censorship in the first place, but even then they could argue that they are maximising the ability of Chinese citizens to engage online, censoring the minimum number of their posts - after all, manual censor review costs money, so the fewer posts selected for review the better.

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