February 21, 2006

"They're pursuing freedom, but it results in less freedom."

The WaPo has a long piece on blogging in China, where the government bans discussing politics and where Microsoft has shown its willingness to delete blogs that violate this ban, lest the government block MSN Spaces altogether:
When Zhao Jing moved his blog to Microsoft's popular MSN Spaces site last summer, some users worried the Chinese government would block the entire service. The censors had blacklisted the last site where the young journalist had posted his spirited political essays, and he seemed unwilling to tone down his writing at the new address.

But Zhao, better known by the pen name Anti, told fellow bloggers not to worry. If the government objected to his blog, he predicted, Microsoft would "sell me out" and delete it rather than risk being blocked from computer screens across China....

[Fang Xingdong, the author of a book that attacked Microsoft's market dominance as a threat to national security and chairman of Bokee, China's largest blog service provider] expressed concern about Zhao. "I understand his views, but I don't agree with his methods," he said. "If you use blogging as a political tool, you could destroy the development of blogging in China. When people like Anti come out, there's a lot of pressure on us. They're pursuing freedom, but it results in less freedom."
This is a complex problem, interweaving government power, individual expression, and business competition. Blogging is open to everyone, so it will inevitably produce speakers like Zhao, who push beyond the edges of the speech that is permitted. Business-oriented persons like Fang want to make the whole enterprise work, but they may also have a wise perspective on the development of free speech. Nevertheless, they cannot hope to control all the Zhaos of the world. And what about Microsoft? Would it be better to be excluded altogether, like Blogger? Even if it deletes whichever blogs the government identifies as offending its repressive standards, there will always be many new blogs springing up within the service. It is inherent in blogging that there will be a very large number of voices. Isn't it better to find a way to create the place where blogging can happen? Or is Microsoft's unfair competition with the Chinese blogging services the greater concern?

3 comments:

JohnF said...

I think it's too easy to lose sight of the actual choices for the Chinese people here. Aren't they simply (1) a crippled Microsoft Spaces/Google/Yahoo, etc., or (2) nothing?

If these are the choices, it seems to me hard to criticize the providers.

Moreover, if the course of recent tech history is any guide, in time the crippled services will either be overcome or will be replaced with fuller-featured ones. And probably in not too much time.

So is this really a big deal?

Jacques Cuze said...

You can run Tor on your own home network to help make for a truly anonymous internet for all (the navy, whistleblowers, philanderers, dissidents, al qaeda).

Tor is a network of virtual tunnels that allows people and groups to improve their privacy and security on the Internet. It also enables software developers to create new communication tools with built-in privacy features. Tor provides the foundation for a range of applications that allow organizations and individuals to share information over public networks without compromising their privacy.

Individuals use Tor to keep websites from tracking them and their family members, or to connect to news sites, instant messaging services, or the like when these are blocked by their local Internet providers. Tor's hidden services let users publish web sites and other services without needing to reveal the location of the site. Individuals also use Tor for socially sensitive communication: chat rooms and web forums for rape and abuse survivors, or people with illnesses.

Journalists use Tor to communicate more safely with whistleblowers and dissidents. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) use Tor to allow their workers to connect to their home website while they're in a foreign country, without notifying everybody nearby that they're working with that organization.

Groups such as Indymedia recommend Tor for safeguarding their members' online privacy and security. Activist groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) are supporting Tor's development as a mechanism for maintaining civil liberties online. Corporations use Tor as a safe way to conduct competitive analysis, and to protect sensitive procurement patterns from eavesdroppers. They also use it to replace traditional VPNs, which reveal the exact amount and timing of communication. Which locations have employees working late? Which locations have employees consulting job-hunting websites? Which research divisions are communicating with the company's patent lawyers?

A branch of the U.S. Navy uses Tor for open source intelligence gathering, and one of its teams used Tor while deployed in the Middle East recently. Law enforcement uses Tor for visiting or surveilling web sites without leaving government IP addresses in their web logs, and for security during sting operations.

The variety of people who use Tor is actually part of what makes it so secure. Tor hides you among the other users on the network, so the more populous and diverse the user base for Tor is, the more your anonymity will be protected.

Jack said...

John: I think it is a big deal, but I tend to agree with your prudential analysis. When the early Christians were being persecuted by the government of their time, some of them became martyrs but others found ways to communicate in public without being caught. The fish symbol, now widely recognizable, was originally an example of the latter approach.

People like Zhao will continue to push the envelope and be silenced, but others will find ways to make their points without seeming to talk about politics at all. Both approaches are necessary to bring down an absolutist tyranny.