How China censors the net: by making sure there’s too much information

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Flooding involves deluging the citizen with a torrent of information – some accurate, some phoney, some biased – with the aim of making people overwhelmed. In a digital world, flooding is child’s play: it’s cheap, effective and won’t generate backlash. (En passant, it’s what Russia – and Trump – do.)


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “How China censors the net: by making sure there’s too much information” was written by John Naughton, for The Observer on Saturday 16th June 2018 18.00 UTC

One of the axioms of the early internet was an observation made by John Gilmore, a libertarian geek who was one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “The internet,” said Gilmore, “interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” To lay people this was probably unintelligible, but it spoke eloquently to geeks, to whom it meant that the architecture of the network would make it impossible to censor it. A forbidden message would always find a route through to its destination.

Gilmore’s adage became a key part of the techno-utopian creed in the 1980s and early 1990s. It suggested that neither the state nor the corporate world would be able to censor cyberspace. The unmistakable inference was that the internet posed an existential threat to authoritarian regimes, for whom control of information is an essential requirement for holding on to power.

In the analogue world, censorship was relatively straightforward. It merely required state control of all the main communications media – print, radio and television – plus fear of draconian punishment for anyone daring to circumvent the resulting restrictions on information citizens were allowed to see. The 20th century provided numerous instances of how this worked – in fascist dictatorships, the Soviet empire and Mao’s China, for example – and how effective it could be in the pre-digital age.

Although much has changed since those dark days, it remains true that the internet (as distinct from the web) is still very difficult to censor. And yet – despite that – authoritarian regimes are flourishing. How come?

The answer, in a nutshell, is that they have sharpened up their act. In the process, some have displayed remarkable insights into the nature and affordances of network technology, insights that some democratic governments still don’t seem to appreciate. And at the cutting edge of the new approach to censorship that has emerged is – surprise, surprise! – the People’s Republic of China.

In 2015, commenting on the fact that Chinese internet users generated 30bn pieces of information a day, a former director of the country’s state internet information office observed that “it is not possible to apply censorship to this enormous amount of data. Thus censorship is not the correct word choice. But no censorship does not mean no management.”

Note that last sentence. The quote comes from a remarkable new book – Censored: Distraction and Diversion Inside China’s Great Firewall – by Margaret Roberts, one of a number of dedicated scholars who have for some years being studying how the Chinese regime is “managing” the internet. What these scholars have been unearthing is a detailed picture of “networked authoritarianism” (to use the academic Rebecca MacKinnon’s term) in action. Roberts’s book is a magisterial summary of what we have learned so far.

In essence, the Chinese approach is a combination of technocratic realism and political nous. It accepts that, in the end, Gilmore’s axiom still applies, but not the techno-utopian conclusion that effective censorship is therefore impossible. It just needs to be updated for a digital age.

Censorship 2.0 is based on the idea that there are three ways of achieving the government’s desire to keep information from the public – fear, friction and flooding. Fear is the traditional, analogue approach. It works, but it’s expensive, intrusive and risks triggering a backlash and/or the “Streisand effect” – when an attempt to hide a piece of information winds up drawing public attention to what you’re trying to hide (after the singer tried to suppress photographs of her Malibu home in 2003).

Friction involves imposing a virtual “tax” (in terms of time, effort or money) on those trying to access censored information. If you’re dedicated or cussed enough you can find the information eventually, but most citizens won’t have the patience, ingenuity or stamina to persevere in the search. Friction is cheap and unobtrusive and enables plausible denial (was the information not available because of a technical glitch or user error?).

Flooding involves deluging the citizen with a torrent of information – some accurate, some phoney, some biased – with the aim of making people overwhelmed. In a digital world, flooding is child’s play: it’s cheap, effective and won’t generate backlash. (En passant, it’s what Russia – and Trump – do.)

In her book, Roberts provides abundant evidence of how the Chinese authorities deploy these three techniques. She also suggests that other authoritarian regimes are now taking lessons from the Beijing playbook. This is significant because there are only two systems of governance left in our world: some version of liberal – or, as in Hungary – illiberal democracy; and the Chinese model of networked authoritarianism. Up to now, we in the west – high on Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” narrative – have tended to assume that our system would triumph and that digital technology would help make that happen. The Chinese take a different view. And in the end they may have the last laugh.

What I’m reading

Poisoned pen
Reddit and the Struggle to Detoxify the Internet: a terrific, thoughtful New Yorker essay by Andrew Marantz on the perennial question of how we fix life online without limiting free speech.

What’s not to like?
Frederic Filloux’s Medium post on Facebook’s biggest strategic concern: teenagers appear to be abandoning it. Interesting analysis by a very astute French commentator.

Home truths
The real post-Brexit options. A sobering public lecture reproduced on Policy Scotland by Sir Ivan Rogers, UK ambassador to the EU from 2013 until his resignation in January 2017.

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