Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Cute Cat Theory: The China Corollary

Michael Anti gave a provocative talk at the Berkman Center last week, arguing that Web 2.0 in China has seen its “golden age” end, and that Chinese activists are now using Web 1.0 tools like email and chat rooms to distribute information, taking advantage of their decentralization and the consequent difficulty in censoring them.

My friend Rebecca MacKinnon has recently posted her reaction to Anti’s talk and to recent censorship of Web 2.0 projects in China. She points to the censorship of underground newspaper and blog Minjian, meta-blog Me Media, a forum for Hepatitis-B patients, and the blogs of people affected in the Shenyang ant farmer protests, covered here and on Global Voices. Rebecca notes that web censorship depends, in part, on elite Chinese who work for Web 2.0 companies being unwilling to challenge the status quo and stand up for the rights of dissidents:

As long as China’s urban elites continue to live well and enjoy their lives, will more than a few freethinkers and courageous souls like Zhai Minglei be bothered to challenge the status quo? Are employees at Web2.0 companies willing to stand up for the rights of ant farmers? If I was a betting kind of person, my money would be on “no.”

Censorship in China works differently than censorship in other parts of the world. In most countries, nations that want to filter the internet do so at the ISP level, ordering ISPs to block certain sites at the IP or DNS level. China goes several steps further, implementing blocks on keywords in URLs, and sometimes in webpages. But they’ve done something far more effective and difficult to accomplish – they’ve forced the authors of Web 2.0 tools to become censors as well.

Author a controversial post on a site like Bokee.com, and it’s a race to see who blocks you first – ISPs, who are controlling access to sensitive webpages by blocking URLs and keywords, or by Bokee itself. According to Reporters Without Borders’ report “Journey to the Heart of Internet Censorship”, employees of Beijing’s 19 largest internet companies meet with the Internet Information Administration Bureau each Friday morning to discuss which sensitive subjects should not be discussed in blog posts, message forums and comment threads. For the following week, the companies will work to prevent such content from appearing on their sites, removing comments and posts, knowing that their performance is evaluated by the IIAB at these weekly meetings.

By blocking access to non-Chinese Web 2.0 sites and building its own competitive set of sites, China seems to have found its way around the Cute Cat Theory. I put forth CCT a few months ago as a way of explaining the growth in protest movements using tools like Blogger, Flickr, YouTube and Google Maps in nations that want to control online speech. The basic theory is that it’s more difficult for a country to block a site like Blogger than a site like Human Rights Watch. The latter is appealing solely to dissidents, while the former is useful both to dissidents and to the vast majority of the population who don’t dissent, but are interested in cute pictures of cats. (And, frankly, who isn’t.)

If Michael is right, and less than five percent of most nation’s Internet users are prone to dissidence, it’s useful to move dissent to sites that are harder to block. Block the dissidents and you block innocent users as well… which raises the possibility that the affected users will become aware of your cause. As Michael says, people in China who are writing controversial posts about politics are considered “weird”. If censorship affects the non-weird as well as the weird, that’s an opportunity to broaden protest movements. When Bahrain blocked Google Earth, in apparent response to a document showing land distribution in the country using imagery from the service, the block attracted far more people to seek out the document than might otherwise have seen it.

Of course, governments can always block specific blogs on Blogger, or use keyword filtering to ban certain YouTube videos. But keyword blocking is more expensive in terms of technical resources, and governments seem inclined to block sites as a whole. (See Sami ben Gharbia’s Access Denied map on Global Voices Advocacy for evidence of how common these blocks are becoming.) This may be a way of communicating what’s considered acceptable or unacceptable to be expressed in this new medium – if YouTube is blocked in Thailand due to a video insulting the Thai king, it’s a message that insults to the monarchy won’t be accepted in an online space.

China’s sending a different message according to Michael Anti – enjoy your newfound personal freedoms, just don’t try to exercise political freedoms. Those personal freedoms include the ability to post pictures of cute cats, to vote for your favorite Super Voice Girl, or to share details of your sex life. Those personal freedoms require access to Web 2.0 tools… but specifically to Chinese-hosted tools which can be heavily censored. Block access to the Web2.0 tools hosted outside of China and you frustrate activists, who would like to use those tools, but you don’t antagonize the average user, who is probably better served by tools written in Chinese for a Chinese audience.

This logic is what makes Anti declare that Web 2.0 isn’t useful for Chinese activists, and that activists are moving back to using earlier tools because they’re less centralized. But these decentralized tools are more appropriate for elites than for the average user – one of the revolutions of Web 2.0 was making the tools easy for inexperienced users, which involved hosting them on servers rather than on client machines. A move back to Web 1.0 is likely to be a move where mainstream users don’t follow the activists – not only does it require using more complicated tools, but it eliminates much of the social interaction made possible through hosting tools on a shared server.

China isn’t blocking all Web 2.0 tools – GMail is a notable exception. Anti speculates that it has remained unblocked because it’s become very popular with prominent business and government users, and that Chinese companies haven’t yet been able to create a service that’s as elegant and effective. But this just helps put into perspective how much Chinese companies have accomplished – building local equivalents of Flickr, YouTube, Blogger and messengers. It raises the question of whether other nations might try create their own Web 2.0 services. (They may want to closely consider the brilliant LuNet protest put together by Belarussian activists, where they gave Lukashenko his own custom-made generative internet.) China is something of a unique situation, though – they’ve got an enormous userbase, great local technical talent, and a language barrier that makes non-localized tools difficult to use.

It’s worth asking the question whether other governments would follow China’s lead even if they were technically able. The trade of political freedoms for personal freedoms seems unlikely in a nation like Saudi Arabia, for instance, which tends to keep a tight grip on both. As a result, not only are activists in Saudi looking for ways around internet censorship – so are average users looking to experiment with Flickr. In comparison, China’s system looks much more effective, and much, much harder to combat.

3 Responses to “Cute Cat Theory: The China Corollary”

  1. As Rebecca says above, until censorship affects the economic lives of the Chinese it is unlikely there will be large scale protests. The Chinese have been very clever in their censorship and its a lot more sophisticated than most.

  2. Hi Ethan. Great follow up. You’ve hit the nail on the head. Your question: “It’s worth asking the question whether other governments would follow China’s lead even if they were technically able” is *the* question. Hopefully projects like Global Voices Advocacy and ONI will be able to monitor for signs of whether this is or isn’t happening, where, and how, and why…

  3. Mathieu says:

    So activists should stay on local Web 2.0 sites, right? But China’s strategy of blocking foreign Web 2.0 tools and making service providers filter local ones, thereby confining activists to lilmited Web 1.0 tools, seems cheap and effective. I don’t see why wouldn’t other governments wouldn’t follow suit, except during that key time when userbases are growing, local tools aren’t comparable, and global companies haven’t been co-opted yet. That’s when cute cat effects could not so much broaden “dissidence” (against what? in which circumstances?) but make people aware of the possibilities – personal, social, political – of Web 2.0, and therefore discontented when those are denied to them.

    In addition to requiring (and helping) our companies to be responsible in countries that censor, I think we need to imitate repressive governments, i.e. speculate less about technology and think more about political culture and history. Otherwise Web 2.0 will almost certainly be a wash for free speech, as Rebecca puts it.

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