An Authoritarian "Third Way" on the Internet

July 09, 2005

There's an old dream held by certain Englishmen of the Enlightenment: the perfect prison, the panopticon. In the panopticon, every cell can be seen into by a single guard standing in the center tower. But the prisoners can't see into the guard tower. The prisoners begin to monitor themselves; they must assume that they are always being watched.

The regulation of the internet has become just such a panopticon in China, where about 100 million regular internet users are dealing with an extremely sophisticated network of monitors and police-state software that regulates their activity.

Worse, it appears that a rather large industry has grown up around the censorship, because all businesses realize they've got a lot to lose if their employees get busted for reading about human rights at work. So corporations, like individuals, are participating in their own punishment.

It was interesting to note that this is all wholly different from (and much more successful than) other authoritarian countries, which regulate by simply restricting access. Here's a bit form the article:

"Its filtering system has become at once more refined and comprehensive over time, building a matrix of controls that stifles access to information deemed illegitimate by authorities," said a study released April 14 by the OpenNet Initiative, a partnership among scholars at Harvard Law School, the University of Toronto and Cambridge University.

China's rulers foster the impression of an all-encompassing ability to monitor Internet usage. Arrests of Internet "subversives" are widely reported. And no one denies persistent but unconfirmed reports that as many as 30,000 government employees toil at monitoring Internet traffic.

"They want you to think that every bit of your activity is tracked. That's what has everybody nervous. If they say something in a chat room, will they get in trouble?" said Anne Stevenson-Yang, who until recently headed the U.S. Information Technology Office, a nonprofit trade group in Beijing representing U.S. information technology businesses operating in China.

As Internet usage explodes, billion-dollar businesses have emerged, offering gateways, news sites, auctions and other services. Private Internet tycoons, reliant on government approval and fearful of criminal prosecution, ensure that online postings don't broach sensitive topics. They hire online moderators with lightning-fast fingers on the "delete" key.

Read the Entire Article (via Wichita Eagle): KRT Wire | 07/13/2005 | In China, sophisticated filters keep the Internet near sterile