Should We Care About Web Censorship in China?

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Steven Schwankert, IDG News Service
PC World
Monday, August 4, 2008; 2:19 AM

Aside from air pollution, the one issue that has occupied the final days before the Beijing Olympics is Internet censorship.

Upon arriving in Beijing, many visiting journalists settled into the Main Press Centre (MPC), north of the Olympic Park, and discovered that access to some Web sites they tried to visit was blocked, namely those of pressure groups, including Amnesty International ( AI) and Reporters Sans Frontieres (Reporters Without Borders, RSF), and Chinese sites like BBC Chinese and the simplified Chinese version of Wikipedia.

The prisoners of conscience some of those sites represent deserve more attention than access to the sites themselves.

Most media reports played up the fact that access at the MPC was blocked. They never mentioned that the average Chinese user experiences the same level of access every day. Nor did they mention that a simple proxy server or anonymous surfing site would get them to the sites they wanted to see.

The ensuing uproar drew first an admission from an International Olympic Committee ( IOC) official that a deal had been made to accept limited censorship, then an adamant denial by IOC President Jacques Rogge that there was no such agreement. In between those two statements, the sites mentioned above and some others all became available, although others, including the blogging site Typepad, remain blocked.

The question is, is this really an important issue, especially for the Olympics, to anyone other than a bunch of reporters?

Ask yourself this: on average, how many Chinese-language sites do you read on a daily basis? You likely answered zero. Zero is also the average number of English-language sites the typical Chinese user reads regularly.

China's most popular search site, by a long shot, is Baidu, not Google. None of China's most popular Web sites are foreign sites, not even the localized editions of top foreign sites. When Chinese users want video content, they probably turn to Youku.com, Tudou.com, or 56.com before they look at YouTube.

For the most part, the issue of Internet censorship in China is like this: imagine that the U.S. government orders ISPs (Internet Service Providers) to block access to Web sites operated by the Italian Communist Party. Now, how many people in the U.S. have actually ever visited that or similar sites? How many people will actually be affected by such an order? Perhaps many Americans would even support such a move to control the propagation of an ideology they find distasteful. That doesn't even mention that only a limited number of Americans would be able to understand the sites, likely written in Italian, even if they could view them.

The same thing is true in China. The average Internet user never runs up against the so-called "Great Firewall of China" because he or she has no interest in what AI, RSF and other foreign sites have to say. Although some, such as Next Media's Apple Daily site can be read by Chinese users, those sites don't offer what users most want: music downloads, local news and information in a language they read fluently, and e-commerce. Last time I checked, the blocked sites didn't have those.

The issue that has been lost in this kerfuffle over Internet censorship is there are Chinese citizens who used the Internet to express their political views and are in jail as a result.

While blocking access to Web sites offering alternative political views may be objectionable, it is the arrest and prosecution of those who wish to speak freely online that deserves the most international attention. For example, Huang Qi[cq], whose site 6-4tianwang.com addressed a variety of social ills but also included material on events such as the 1989 crackdown on demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, spent the better part of five years in jail or house arrest for doing so.

RSF, which states on its site that 50 cyber-dissidents are in jail in China, reported that Huang was taken into custody again in June, and has been held without charge.

That's a problem that can't be solved with a proxy server. If China and the IOC need to be pressed on Internet-related issues, then the detention and prosecution of those who use the Internet as a means of free expression deserve the spotlight.


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