Failing to listen to the sounds of Chinese silence

I was moved by an interesting yet flawed piece by John Naughton in the Grauniad, analysing the kinds of censorship applied by the Chinese government:

So they [researchers] clicked on the URLs associated with a sample of posts and found that some – but not all – had vanished: the pages had disappeared from cyberspace.
The question then was: what was it about the "disappeared" posts that had led to them being censored? And at that point the experiment became very interesting indeed. First of all, it confirmed what other researchers had found, namely that, contrary to neoliberal fantasy, speech on the Chinese internet is remarkably free, vibrant and raucous. But this unruly discourse is watched by a veritable army (maybe as many as 250,000-strong) of censors. And what they are looking for is only certain kinds of free speech, specifically, speech that has the potential for engendering collective action – mobilising folks to do something together in the offline world.

The study quoted is indeed interesting, and highlights one particular and significant aspect of Chinese censorship. Where Naughton fails, though, is in failing to note the unseen, and this is picked up by CiF commentator steviematt:

The Harvard research and Gary King's opinion are both flawed beyond belief.
It only factors the number of posts that were originally published and then disappeared over the course of weeks and months. It ignores the fact that most posts that are critical never have a chance of passing through the filters in the first place.
Indeed, Naughton fails to notice that many of the websites that the West takes for granted in being able to express their opinions are completely blocked in China. Within China, sites like Twitter and Facebook are essentially completely unavailable. YouTube: no chance. You can get to a limited set of Google sites (search and maps are on-and-off accessible in my experience), but it's very iffy. Blogger seems completely blocked. Bing search seems to work fine though. Why is that?

It's because if you are a western firm who wants to provide an Internet site within China, you have to partner with a Chinese company and accept the conditions of serving users within China - key in this is agreeing to provide identity information of your users (source IP addresses , times logged on etc.) at the "request" of the government. The case of Yahoo and the Chinese dissident Shi Tao is illuminating:

According to a letter Amnesty International received from Yahoo! (YHOO), and Yahoo!'s own later public admissions, Yahoo! China provided account-holder information, in compliance with a government request, that led to Shi Tao's sentencing.
Jerry Yang, then-CEO of Yahoo, got roasted by Congress for providing this information when this story came out. Truth be told, though, he really didn't have much choice - Yahoo had presumably agreed to these conditions when it started serving China-based users. If you don't want to play ball with those conditions, and it seems that Google, Twitter and Facebook don't, you're going to be serving outside China and prone to getting blocked by the Great Firewall.

So when Naughton comments "only some kinds of activities are blocked" it's actually in the context of "only some users are willing to discuss these kinds of activities on sites where they know the government has the right to waltz in and demand their details at any time" (before presumably visiting them at home and offering them an extended stay at a pleasant little camp out in the country, for a year or ten.)

Rumours suggest that Facebook might announce something aimed at Chinese users but it's not obvious how they're going to deal with the existing restrictions. Still, Zuckerberg's a smart guy and doesn't seem to be an obvious patsy for the Chinese regime, so it's possible he's got something clever up his sleeve. Stay tuned.

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