Lessons from the ChinaNet

As an avid follower of news in Nepal, especially following the November 2013 Constituent Assembly elections, every now and then, I notice that the website for the Himalayan Times is down. Without insinuating anything as to the cause of these outages, I draw attention to the fact that this phenomenon occurs. Whether it is because the server is down, there is a power outage, or the site has fallen prey to “denial of service” hacking attempts, the website is usually back up within the hour, and I go about my business. I can only imagine what frustration I would have, however, if the website underwent prolonged absence or removal or if I had, in fact, been writing the content for the website.

Image courtesy of inju, © 2007, some rights reserved
Image courtesy of inju, © 2007, some rights reserved

I give this small example, with causes unknown, precisely because the effects of small changes in Internet and online media outlets, with particular reference to the most commonly used sites such as Youtube, Weibo, Twitter and Facebook, are not only enabling the construction of communities around the world, but also are acting as a source of power in and of themselves. The idea that the Internet can act as a type of power that is different from typical military or economic tools is not new, but the thought that those that shape the Internet hold a very real stake in soft power is a reality that most of the general public has yet to fully realize.

The reason for this is that both users and regulators of the Internet and its most avidly used sites take part in this shaping. Nearly seven years following the launch of Wikileaks, three years following the start of the Arab Spring, and one year following the Southern Weekly incident, movements sparked by the Internet have become well-known as “cat and mouse” games, in Michael Anti’s words, between censorship and social movements, which seem as perpetual as the debate on state security and free expression itself.

Although the question on how to move beyond the debate has undergone domestic discussions throughout the world, the effects of these debates on the shaping of the Internet, and thus its users, is not often given thought. The discussions remain primarily domestic, because regulations, controls, and enforcement capabilities of are primarily domestic, particularly on issues of censorship. Lately, however, a number of important efforts have taken to address the problem of the lack of free expression, particularly in politically illiberal societies.

Reminders of the lack of free expression are ever-present in China, particularly where forms of expression that mention abiding to the Constitution or are critical of the Communist Party are heavily tampered with or censored altogether. The government, in fact, pre-emptively arrested activists at the start of the New Year this past January 7, 2014, as the date marked the first anniversary of the Southern Weekly incident, in which the staff of the Guangzhou newspaper protested against censorship one year ago. The government has undertaken a very serious crackdown since the event last year, but the Communist Party-led effort is more sophisticated than mere suppression of free expression. Rather, the Party seeks to create a sense of nationalism through propaganda and the media. The question is often not what the government will suppress, but what it chooses to allow and how these choices affect the users of the Internet at large. Chinese Internet is for the most part internally referentially. Users domestically very rarely use foreign websites for language purposes as well as for reasons of slow connectivity, so the question of foreign websites is often not too controversial. What matters rather is when, especially given that websites like Weibo act nearly as a media outlet for citizens, freedom of expression is allowed and for how long it is allowed. Although the Communist Party has been placing controls on attacks against its credibility as the ruling party of China, the same censorship rules do not apply to local authorities. The people are increasingly given more opportunity to make domestic grievances under certain principles of state security that are highly nationalistic, but at the same time leave scope for a certain kind of critique.

China is not the only country focusing on such types of endeavours, however. Censors such as SOPA, TPP, PIPA, ITU, and ACTA are the various versions of the same system of filtration that exists to protect the state from revolution across the world. The question then becomes where this leaves social movements and reforms.

Certain efforts in the West are being taken to aid those seeking political change. On 22 October 2013, Google announced its Project Shield initiative in an effort to protect small, independent sites in particular that face deliberate attacks on their websites, especially during heated political happenings, against “denial of service” hacks. It is often not just political websites that this takes place with, however. On 22 January 2014, the largest outage, reportedly created by hackers, took place affecting nearly two-thirds of all websites used within China’s filtration system, including Baidu. These incidents are no doubt also part of the “cat and mouse” game that seems perpetually necessary to guide a country to an understanding of itself. The story builds on both sides.

The lesson then cannot be merely that the “cat and mouse” game exists. Rather, it is that the system is perhaps turning out to be less effective in causing real social change than previously expected, unless that change is tolerable to those already in positions of power.

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