U. BUFFALO (US)—A new study confirms what was made evident by the very public Google-Chinese government dispute over Internet censorship: China’s cyberculture may be growing rapidly but that growth is not a harbinger of new political freedom.
“Some hold that advanced technology and the free flow of information make the Internet uncontrollable,” says Junhao Hong, professor of communication at the University at Buffalo.
“But there has apparently been no diminution in Chinese government surveillance, and Internet censorship could continue to be one of the most pervasive barriers to regime change.”
Hong studied claims that the widespread use of blogs threatens Chinese government control over democratic discourse, free speech, and civil rights in the country’s traditionally closed society. Details are published in the journal Telematics and Informatics.
Internet regulation is more extensive and advanced in China than in any other nation. The government employs a broad range of laws and regulations to block Web site content and monitor access of individuals to the Internet.
The government expects branches of state-owned ISPS, organizations and international companies, including Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft, to implement these measures.
Hong and coauthor Shaojung Sharon Wang acknowledge that “the rapidly transforming blogosphere could be a catalyst for social change and organized political discourse,” but add that the battle between the Chinese authoritarian government, which wants censorship and supremacy, and Internet activists seeking to overcome governmental control, will continue for the foreseeable future.
“Although the change in China’s cyberculture is, like all change, inherently contagious and continuous, it is not likely to overcome government regulations that intimidate users,” Hong predicts.
One reason for this, he says, is that China’s blog regulations require the registration of all noncommercial and personal Web sites and blogs, demonstrating that while China encourages economic openness, it maintains strict control over politics and dissent.
Hong points out that blog service providers, which have real names, addresses, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses, are required by the government to monitor content and delete illegal and “bad” information in a timely manner or terminate service to the offending blogger.
“This arrangement, made official in a 2007 pact signed by at least 20 major blog service providers including Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp.,” Hong says, “is enough in itself to quell online political dissent.”
He points out that the Internet itself implements technological architectures that mine information about human behavior and preferences. That information is fed back to those overseeing cyberspace activities, making their oversight much easier.
“It is the very openness of the Internet that permits the tracing of every online activity. So government monitoring of the system has a great impact on the Chinese population and provokes strong fear of arrest and imprisonment,” Hong says.
“The effect of this social surveillance is the depoliticization of communication by self-censorship,” he says, “meaning that at this point China’s blogosphere, in and of itself, has limited value as a medium for free speech, even for the one percent of the population that blogs.
“Few Chinese bloggers discuss ‘pure’ politics online. Instead, as in the West, they concentrate on celebrity gossip and self disclosure.”
The Chinese government’s ability to impose Internet censorship is limited, but its ability to conduct Internet monitoring is not, Hong says.
“Since the openness of the Internet allows the tracing of every online activity, fear of arrest and imprisonment ensures that the impact of that monitoring is likely to be strong. So at the moment, at least, the Internet is not a real threat to authoritarian regimes.”
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