There’s more to the Great Firewall than technology

Yesterday, in the US, former journalist, academic and blogger Rebecca MacKinnon gave testimony to the senate in a hearing called, “Global Internet Freedom and the Rule of Law.” A couple of days ago, she posted the written version of her testimony. It’s worth reading the whole thing, as it discusses several issues relevant to the technology and China infatuated among us. But there was one part in particular I found interesting, in a section detailing the Chinese government’s methods of Internet control. It focused on the self-censorship often applied by Chinese Internet companies, and the difference between controlling information over which the government has jurisdiction, and that over which it does not:

Filtering is the primary means of censoring content over which an authority has no jurisdiction. When it comes to websites and Internet services over which a government does have legal jurisdiction – usually because at least some of the company’s operations and computer servers are located in-country – why merely block or filter content when you can delete it from the Internet entirely? The technical means for deleting content, or preventing its publication or transmission in the first place, vary depending on the country and situation. The legal mechanism, however, is essentially the same everywhere. In Anglo-European legal systems we call it “intermediary liability.” The Chinese government calls it “self-discipline,” but it amounts to the same thing, and it is precisely the legal mechanism through which Google’s Chinese search engine, Google.cn, was required to censor its search results. All Internet companies operating within Chinese jurisdiction – domestic or foreign – are held liable for everything appearing on their search engines, blogging platforms, and social networking services. They are also legally responsible for everything their users discuss or organize through chat clients and messaging services. In this way, much of the censorship and surveillance work in China is delegated and outsourced by the government to the private sector – who, if they fail to censor and monitor their users to the government’s satisfaction, will lose their business license and be forced to shut down. It is also the mechanism through which China-based companies must monitor and censor the conversations of more than fifty million Chinese bloggers. Politically sensitive conversations are deleted or blocked from being published at all. Bloggers who get too influential in the wrong ways can have their accounts shut down and their entire blogs erased. That work is done primarily not by “Internet police” but by employees of Internet companies.

Rebecca’s footnotes for this paragraph, which are worthwhile, are here. Numbers 6 and 7.

I thought this was worthwhile because there is a great deal of attention paid to the technological aspects of censorship in the US, partly because American companies have had some complicity in it, and partly because it’s simply an interesting technology story. But the self-censorship and regulatory side is has an much more significant effect on the content that most Chinese Internet users are really interested in.

On this topic it’s also well worth reading a February 23rd post from the always excellent China Media Project on the licensing of journalists by the General Administration of Press and Publication, and how that is used as a tool of information control:

We can say metaphorically that four documents are used to control media in mainland China. The first is the “birth certificate,” or chusheng zheng (出生证), which means that the state controls which publications can and cannot be issued with publishing licenses, or kanhao (刊号). The second is the press card, or jizhe zheng (记者证), which determines who does and who does not have the credentials to practice journalism. Next comes the “certificate of appointment,” or weiren zhuang (委任状), which controls appointments of top officials inside media outfits. Finally, there is the “death certificate,” or siwang zheng (死亡证), meaning that the CCP can choose at any time to shut down or otherwise discipline media that do not fall in line.

And, of course, the surprisingly fascinating article on online censorship that ran in the Global Times last week, and which I commented on here.

See also:

Stan Abrams at China Hearsay with a fisk-o-rama of the Financial Times’ coverage of Google’s portion of the hearing.

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