Freedom's Just Another Word

There are many ways around the Great Firewall of China

There is something refreshingly frank about Internet censorship. This is not the self-imposed restraint of timid newsrooms, the gentle pressure of businessmen, or the closed-door dealings of a righteous panel. Type the words freedom or democracy in the title of a Microsoft-hosted Chinese language blog and you'll get an error message instantly, bright yellow, direct as a road sign: "Please delete the prohibited expression."

Since news surfaced last week that Microsoft has agreed to ban the use of certain words on its Chinese language blogs, the blogosphere has been berating Microsoft for practicing a capitalism so rapacious it would buttress communism. Reporters sans Frontieres blasted Microsoft for "collaboration" and a "lack of ethics"; elsewhere, the company is derided for caving in, and playing by the warped rules of a repressive state in the pursuit of profit. Microsoft fed the fire with a wooden rejoinder worthy of the Party itself. Recited one loyal project manager, "MSN abides by the laws, regulations and norms of each country in which it operates."

The collective shaming, significantly, has taken place almost entirely on this side of the Pacific, in English, on behalf of our blogging Chinese counterparts. According to the LA Times, a survey of Chinese language blogs revealed only a few entries on the subject—which makes sense considering how little Microsoft's censorship gesture will amount to in China. MSN Spaces prohibits a list of words, like Tibet and separatism and only in the title line. Almost anything goes in the body of the posts. The "Democracy Dalai Lama Falun Gong" blog is not an option, but then, it never was for any serious dissident hoping to evade detection.

It's hard to imagine how such half-hearted restrictions would hinder the prototypically impudent blogger, but in a country with a rich tradition of dissident literature, few are even going to notice. Decades of state censorship have yielded a mastery of euphemism and allegory so subtle the Chinese government ends up promoting films meant to mock its rule. If any culture will find a way to discuss freedom while routing around the word freedom, it's China's.

The most disturbing thing about the attacks on Microsoft is not their lack of context, but the glib assumption that it would be more ethical for Microsoft to refuse to do business in China altogether than to make these superficial gestures toward censorship. If you can't let the Chinese post about democracy, in other words, better not to let them post about anything at all. Under that reasoning, every company in the business of disseminating information in China is implicated. "Ethical" newsrooms should go dark and printing houses should stop accepting manuscripts. The truly courageous should stop speaking altogether. Almost every engagement with totalitarianism requires trade-offs, and a refusal to see gray makes it impossible to distinguish between offering superficially censored blog tools and, say, selling censorship technology to Beijing.

Internet censorship provokes a special kind of vitriol because the Internet was supposed to be different; in the words of John Perry Barlow, "a global social space" naturally independent of tyranny. Rebecca MacKinnon, a research fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, has argued that China's ubiquitous web censorship will prevent the blogosphere from bringing down the regime anytime soon.

I don't have a lot of faith in the Great Firewall of China, a skepticism strengthened by countless hours spent surfing around a more restrictive firewall in Southeast Asia. Cyberspace is too vast to police, information too fluid, and there are a slew of sites dedicated to punching holes in the walls meant to hold back the deluge. China is often said to have co-opted the Internet for its own purposes, but the idea that a slow-moving communist bureaucracy can stanch the stream and spackle every new fissure stretches credulity.

But if it's not the firewall holding back the pajama-clad hordes of blogger revolutionaries, what is it? There is another complaint you often hear from pundits who spend a few moments in Shanghai cyber cafes: The kids aren't perusing BBC, they're playing Counterstrike and chatting with their friends. A web developer based in Bangkok once told me he was trying to direct potential Burmese dissidents to news sites, but they were only interested in chatting about soap stars. We give you the tools to change the world, lament the cyber-revolutionaries, and you use them to gossip.

That's too simple a story to explain why existing dissident groups have yet to harness the web's potential, but it's important to realize that not every geek—even in China—harbors hope of political transformation. The Chinese, just like the rest of us, want the web for its gossip, games, and, not least, porn. At least four million Chinese maintain blogs, 55,000 of them on MSN spaces. There is more to be passionate about, apparently, than politics.

That's not to say the blogosphere won't have a role to play in revolutions to come, just that it's possible to carve a space outside the realm of punditry, and denying someone the right to post about a soccer match because he can't type the words freedom, Dalai Lama, or democracy makes sense only if you're willing to privilege political liberty above every other kind. If freedom were just about the right to type the word, after all, it wouldn't be worth posting about in the first place.

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