Digital activism and censorship (and more about China)

I was going to do a post pointing to a couple of papers looking at the use and role of the internet in political campaigning. However, in doing so I can across some far more interesting sites which reminded me that social activism is far more interesting, so I’m pointing to them instead. I think this area has much greater significance that the narrow confines of electoral contests – important though those obviously are.

It is also particularly relevant at the moment, because any examination on ‘digital activism’ inevitably looks at issues of censorship, and no government is more thorough in its efforts at censorship than the Chinese government.

In an extremely thought-provoking piece (found through Solidariti) on using Web 2.0 for activism, Ethan Zuckerman explores what can be learned from the examples of the imprisonment of bloggers. One example he uses was the arrest of Hao Wu, the editor of Global Voices China.

He devotes some time looking at a number of different nations, including an assessment of China:

China filters the internet more effectively than any other nation, using a combination of keyword filters, IP blocks and some DNS fiddling. The system is extremely complicated, involving filtering at a national boundary level and throughout the network, with some blocking taking place deep within the national network. China uses some techniques not widely seen elsewhere, including sending RSET packets when certain keywords are detected to knock users offline.
But that’s not the sinister part. Effective as the Great Firewall may be (and, actually, it’s not that effective – lots of dissidents get around it using various proxy techniques), the most relevant Chinese censorship takes place within Chinese Web 2.0 companies – including US companies operating servers in China. There’s an incredible wealth of Web 2.0 startups in China. These companies allow Chinese users to share video, post photos and write blogs.

They’re much more useful to the average Chinese user as the tools and content are in Chinese, not English. And, unlike most popular web 2.0 tools, they’re not blocked in China. And they’ve got censorship baked in. Research conducted by my colleage Rebecca MacKinnon discovered that MSN Spaces, Microsoft’s Chinese-localized and Chinese-hosted service prevented her from putting the terms “democracy” or “human rights” in the title of her blog. According to a report published by RSF, the heads of web companies meet weekly with censors who instruct them on what keywords to block, allowing the system to be extremely flexible and adaptable.

Some Chinese bloggers have responded by being extremely creative in their use of images. Some Chinese bloggers began posting images of river crabs on their blogs. The joke is that the term for “river crab” sounds very similar to the word “harmonize”, a term that had become slang for “censored” – “My blog just got harmonized.” The term “harmonized” became so popular that it became blocked. So Chinese bloggers began to refer to their blogs as having been “river crabbed”. …….
Here’s the thing – for the vast majority of Chinese internet users, they’re encountering a much more free information environment than their parents experienced. Michael Anti argues that Chinese society is much freer than the US in terms of personal behavior, especially around premarital sex and homosexuality. The vast majority of young Chinese are enjoying these personal freedoms and are willing to accept a world in which political freedom is somewhat constrained.

China’s censorship genius is that they’ve found a way to let people have their cute cats and have censorship as well. While China will block sites like Human Rights Watch, they won’t block domestic Web 2.0 sites, and hence the collateral damage from blocking banal content doesn’t draw non-activists to become aware of activist issues. Is this unique to China, or will we see this technique spread? It’s hard to imagine Ethiopia, for instance, being capable of building their own Amharic internet applications and blocking all Web 2.0 tools.

The whole piece is well worth reading and contains lots of links to many other pieces on the topic, including another of his own on the pros and cons of Facebook activism.  There are millions of ‘causes’ and ‘groups’ on Facebook which could loosely be seen as being related to social activism, but its hard to see much value in benefit of most of them.

Reading research by people who explore the trends, uses and impacts of such things on a daily basis is a quicker way than just personal trial and error (although not always as much fun)

Like & share:


  1. Is there a anti-mobile phone movement Senator!?As Australia s take up rate of these technologies,and now the resultant health problems,pointed out today in the SMH., and referred to constantly in the Nexus Magazine,for years before the vested interests here would even go near it,as a pen opposed to mobiles and still a non user..I get a sickening feeling in my gut,like Australia has been booted in that area by the bloody media,and,the likes of the deregulated market as far as the ownership of Telstra is concerned.Usual culprits again,amongst many.. Murdochs ,Packers,and anyone else,who just wanted turnover.There were many,and relying on hiding behind a type of instrumental analysis,whilst there were ways of following heat patterns.Class action time is it!?Or should we send a few people some airline tickets and twenty-four hours to leave!? As the heroes they are they can be met by Rudd!?Or we could throw the bloody things at well appointed real estate,because after all,if it wasnt for the cost of going to university,I could now be a neuro-surgeon myself,fully aware,of this developing dilemma,sat on,by very lazy people.Research should be done on all the yes-sayers of mobiles,and collect every little bit of tax they owe and then more sum.And disallow the use of charities as tumour-wash!?Or hand me a gun,to shoot their tumours out,because they will have first access to surgery…..bastards!?

  2. This is fascinating. I have two friends living and working in China who are constantly frustrated and angered by the censorship there. They have Hong Kong CNN, which is inexplicably blacked out when certain news items come on.

    Not sure at all what Philip’s post has to do with anything.

Comments are closed.