Internet Censorship: The Myth, Oft Told, and the Reality: Protests in Iran and China Have Spotlighted the Use of Social Media, Showing Its Power in Finding Ways to Push Information Past Barriers Set Up by Government

By Tuinstra, Fons | Nieman Reports, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Internet Censorship: The Myth, Oft Told, and the Reality: Protests in Iran and China Have Spotlighted the Use of Social Media, Showing Its Power in Finding Ways to Push Information Past Barriers Set Up by Government


Tuinstra, Fons, Nieman Reports


The political situations and protests in Tehran, Iran and Xinjiang, China unfolded as this summer began. So, too, did the latest round in the inevitable clash of the Internet's borderless communications and governments' attempt to rein them in. Similar tensions from earlier confrontations offer glimpses of the complicated relationship between the power of the Web and the question of how authoritarian rulers exert their power in return.

Follow reports on Internet censorship, and the road leads not only to China, Kenya and Iran, where governments have attempted to clamp down on the use of social media, but to Australia, Germany and the United States, where companies develop software to enable such censorship. In such stories resides the illusion that the Internet actually can and will be controlled. This myth of control is perpetuated by many in the old media, some of whom must be hoping, as they tell these stories, that their top-down approach to news gathering and distribution still has a chance against the tsunami of people-generated information that has devastated so many legacy media brands and likely will destroy more in the years ahead. (Of course, there is also the argument that when freedom of information and press is at stake, siding with those who urge restraint seems odd. But let's not make things too complicated.)

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In the telling of this Internet censorship story, a psychological component is almost certainly in play. This is, after all, a time when journalists feel their livelihood is under siege from the Internet. Although some at legacy news organizations have embraced parts of the Internet, a foreboding fear of its power and consequences prevails. Stories about the success of Internet censorship, illusionary as they might be, can provide relief to those who feel embattled and who hope that in some way the Internet can be controlled, in part because their survival depends on it.

Such hope is misguided. Add to this a trail of inaccurate reporting about what's been happening in Xinjiang--and last year in Tibet--and a crisis of mistrust has been created. The increasingly active online community knows the Chinese news media cannot be trusted given their government control. But Western media, too, are systematically scrutinized for what is regarded as their biased reporting. In China, at least, I have observed that the Western press have lost the high ground of reliability they used to hold. Drastic cuts in funding for foreign correspondents have had an impact on the quality and diversity of reporting. Now, this force of online scrutiny cannot be stopped. Attempts to block it are answered with new, inventive ways around whatever barriers are constructed.

Chinas Response

Technically, a government can shut down the Internet. But there are reasons--economic and political--that trump censorship and help to explain why it seldom does. China could have closed the entire Internet in Xinjiang province in July after riots there resulted in nearly 200 deaths and more than 1,000 wounded. In fact, reports from the region indicated that the Internet was not accessible for some time. Because Xinjiang is a marginal part of China, the consequences of temporarily bringing its economy to a standstill are not huge for the country as a whole. However, when China and Iran, as nations, experience political crisis and citizen protest, they cannot afford to close down the digital highway of information given the impact this would have on commerce and the economy. North Korea is the only country that has fully controlled the Internet, though few countries seem to be willing to follow its example.

Throughout the rest of China, the response of the telecommunication operators was more moderate during the Xinjiang crisis. …

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