The Power of Propaganda – by “Brian S”

Questions still remain about how aggressive the Chinese government is going to get in their crusade to censor all information available to their citizens (although, in an ironic twist of hypocrisy, they have recently accused Google of censorship).  The word “brainwash” comes to mind when one thinks of the behavior of the Chinese government towards its citizens; clearly the government’s goal is to keep their citizens from harboring any negative beliefs about their country, or knowing anything about their country’s dark past.  In America, where Glenn Beck calls the President a racist on national television and refuses to apologize, and where some 40% of the country agrees with him, this seems absurd at first blush.  But upon further reflection, one thing stands out: people believe what they are told.  People believe all sorts of political propaganda, for example, regardless of origin.  If the only images presented to the Chinese population are ones of a benevolent government, how will they know they are being lied to?  1984 comes to mind, naturally.

That said, will China bother to maintain their censors? For now, it seems they will.

Ways of bypassing the internet censorship include Tor and UltraSurf.  These programs re-route traffic through external IPs to avoid censors.  It is within the Chinese government’s power to block these IPs, but until recently they had not done so.  Tor was blocked in the days leading up to China’s National Day of October 1st, but UltraSurf remains unblocked, although it is apparently fairly easy to do so. Why?  One imagines China is aware of the tool, but perhaps the threat is sufficiently small.  A few thousand people among China’s billion-plus are hardly worth bothering about.  With UltraSurf available, users may not have incentive to find more devious ways to get around the censorship, which is exactly the sort of behavior the government wants to discourage.

As long as the truly objectionable sites are blocked to the public, and relatively few users are bypassing the censors in the first place, China need not worry. For example, China recently blocked a page called the Berlin Twitter Wall, a site which intended its users to share their thoughts and memories of the fall of the Berlin wall, but turned into mass criticism of the so-called Great Firewall of China.  But a small percentage of internet users use UltraSurf.  A very small percentage would read or post on a site like this.  The overlap must be essentially nil, and as long as it’s sufficiently small, it can cause only limited harm.

In fact, fostering a minority opinion is not even so bad for China.  One would not go so far as to deem it a goal of theirs, but having a minority opinion appear weak can bolster support for the majority opinion.  To this end, the Chinese government does need to ensure that the majority opinion lies in their favor, or at least seems to. China is effectively paying people to post opinions backing the government to make it appear as if most people support the government. Then, of course, more may be swayed and recruited to the bogus cause: the strategy is “fake it ’til you make it.”  And if enough lies are spread to enough people, it may be difficult for the people of China to know what to believe, regardless of how aware they may become of the other (true) side of the story (i.e. real history).  And if that happens, censorship is no longer necessary – much like the way propaganda works in the U.S. today.  Is Obama a hero or a villain?  It’s not clear.  Perhaps the Chinese government will find similar murky ground as a stepping stone on its quest towards a golden public image.

The Devil’s Advocate – by “Reynolds H”

Amongst Americans, internet freedom, is considered a basic human right.  The ability to access any information that is desired, to publish any free thoughts on any topic, and to freely criticize the authorities that govern are all written into a law which protects these freedoms.  It’s been instilled in everyone in our generation since the first stages of our education: freedom of speech.  But is the freedom of speech, especially via the internet, truly a basic human right or is it merely a luxury right, which Americans have become accustomed to so much that it is perceived in the same light as shelter, water, health, and nourishment?  Americans often express this desensitization to other scenarios by exclaiming that all countries policies should promote freedom in all aspects and citizens of those countries should expect no less than the same freedom grated to citizens in the United States.  The United States’ active encouragement of the rapid progression of freedoms in China, especially internet freedom, may be misguided, not allowing China to reach the steps necessary for the developmental path to achieve the level of freedom comparable with the United States.

The reason that citizens of the United States are able to enjoy the freedom of speech which they are guaranteed by law today is the stability of the social and government institutions within the country.  The stabilization of the government structure allowed citizens of the United States to trust that their government could survive and therefore be able to protect its citizens, leading to the stabilization of the social institutions, which then allowed for the cascade effect of the evolution of rights.  The government structure of the United States has had structure since its creation in 1776, which allowed for the normal development leading to the creation of a code of basic rights accepted into law, and eventually to the current system of freedoms enjoyed in the US.   From a more modern perspective, to a certain extent, the United States has enjoyed government stability since the end of the civil war in the 1860s, with little to no major governmental changes happening since then.  In this time, there have been major advances in the civil right of citizens, from the ending of slavery to the equal rights among men and women to the equal rights among race, with only recently (past 40 years) having achieved equal basic human rights for all citizens.  These advances in human rights came by a strong social approval across the nation and a banding together of people to enact change in the government, social disorder was used as a tool to create change in the laws governing the society.  This change, however, was only possible because of the strong structure of the government and the stability it held, allowing for large swings of social disapproval and disorder without the destruction of the country’s government structure.

China lacks the social order and strong government structure needed for the accelerated development of the human rights.  The People’s Republic of China (PRC) did not come into existence in its present form until the end of the 1950’s with the ending of the Chinese Civil War.  When it did assume power, the PRC inherited the poor governmental, social, and judicial institutions from the pre-civil war governance.  Even today, China is still tackling the attainment of the basic human rights for the majority of its citizens and the creation of a stable governmental structure.  Therefore the main goal of the PRC is to create and maintain social order and to build the government structure.

Recently the NY Times published an article about the proposed adoption of a registration requirement which would require users to register their real names, identification numbers, and information to access and comment on new sites.  When asked to comment, officials and state-connected academics in the information security field, argued that mandatory controls are necessary to help subdue inflammatory attacks, misinformation and other illegal activity deemed to endanger social order.  In another NY Times article, officials were asked to comment on the increase in proposed internet censorship and monitoring during 2009, a year which commemorates numerous anniversaries marking advancements and socially revolutionary events.  Reporters indicated that China had established a high level committee completely devoted to the maintaining of social stability.  Government censors have blocked over a thousand websites, closed liberal forums and blogs for, blocked access to YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, and cut off Internet service in locations with serious social instability, notably in the Xinjiang region of the west after deadly clashes between different ethnic groups, Chinese officials have defended that internet shutdowns were based on the grounds of national security.  The trend here is evident.  Although considered wrongful according to the western bias, one way of maintaining social order is internet and information censorship.  By eliminating sources which criticize the government, invoke social unrest and riot, and promote rebellion, the PRC government is trying to strengthen the internal social order which is necessary to progress to its steady stabilization.  To put it into plainer words, China is trying to get everyone on the same page, so that they can move on to the next step.  This may seem like backwards primitive thinking from an American biased perspective, but people must understand that the government responsibility is to provide protection for its citizens and in China’s case, that protection may come at the price of some of the freedoms of the citizens.

Once this social stability is steady, it allows for the creation of a better government, then for the stability of that government, thereby finally allowing for the social disapproval necessary to enact change in that government.   But if that social stability is never achieved, the cascade of processes leading to change cannot start. Plain and simple, despite the repression of the freedoms of the public, China may be doing what is best for their country for the long run.  Repressed freedom, and thus internet censorship may be the “evil means” to the beneficial end of the furthering of freedoms in China.

Censorship and Free Speech in China and Hong Kong – by “Charlotte M”

Growing up in Hong Kong, one quickly learns how fortunate we are to be able to enjoy freedom of speech, and the lack of censorship. It is one place where you still do see China’s method of “one country, two systems”: while in Hong Kong, we have access to uncensored internet and freedom of speech, China is not privy to the same access.

Access to uncensored internet doesn’t just make a country a better place by itself; instead, it provides its citizens with the tools and information they need for self-improvement. Take google.cn’s censoring of images when you search for “tiananmen square.” If, say, you’re a curious adolescent living in China, and you have taken an interest in China’s history, and particularly the Cultural Revolution, you might want to do some research about it. However, the information you will glean from an internet search (or likely from any sort of research you might undertake, as I have a sneaking suspicion that books painting the events of Tiananmen Square in a less-than-flattering light have been censored as well) will not give you an accurate picture of the events that occurred. How can one properly their history, or the current state of things, if attempts to learn about them are quashed by the government? Shielding the people from information about their own past, or their families, doesn’t protect or help anyone. Instead, it helps the Chinese government to deny their past, and instead of helping their people, it hurts them.

Hong Kong, however, is different. While google.com is redirected to google.com.hk, you can opt-out of the redirection, and search using the “normal” version of Google, thanks to the relative lack of censorship in Hong Kong. While just north Hong Kong, in China, you will not find information about Tibet’s desired cessation from China, Hong Kong enjoys enough freedom to have numerous “Free Tibet” protests.

However, Hong Kong is truly just a vestige of colonial rule. While the Sino-British Joint Declaration stipulates that the people of Hong Kong will enjoy the same rights and freedoms as they did under British colonial rule for at least 50 years after returning to Chinese rule in 1997, there is strong evidence that these freedoms will not extend beyond 2047. China’s influence, and desire to manage it’s people, is simply too great to allow the people of Hong Kong, who are of so much important to the surrounding region and to the world, to be so influenced by outside sources. Already, we have seen evidence of this;: in 2002, the government proposed Article 23 of the Basic Law, which would have prevented treason and subversion against the Chinese Government. This was met with great opposition, and because Hong Kong still maintains a separate (although highly influenced by China) government, the Article was not passed. Had it been passed, however, one would have seen changes to the internet similar to what is seen in China– very little that makes the Chinese government look bad.

Lifting the Veil of Anonymity: Accountability in the Digital Age – by “Andrew C”

Skanks in NYC

In February of 1996, John Perry Barlow issued a rather flowery piece of prose that he called “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.”  In this Declaration, Perry envisioned an Internet governed by “ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonweal” over which the governments of the world would have neither “moral right to rule”, nor “any methods of enforcement.”

Today, Perry’s piece is seriously somewhat dated.  If there’s one thing the last 13 years have shown it’s that, while the internet does in fact have plenty of world-changing applications, it is far from a utopian virtual dimension.  Any independent observer of the internet today would be undoubtedly amused by the notion that, if left to their own devices, internet users will be motivated by some higher sense of ethics.  Rather, it has become increasingly obvious that no amount of idealistic philosophy will change the baser instincts among the less socially inclined among us.  Actually, it would seem that the relative anonymity of the internet has served to increase the willingness of certain people to post hateful, horrible things.

Ironically, that trend plays perfectly into Barlow’s claim that the US government has no right and no enforcement mechanisms with which to control that which happens on the internet.  Quite frankly, yes it does, and yes it can.  The jurisdiction of the US judicial system undoubtedly extends to comments made in cyberspace, and in recent years, users posting anonymously on blogs and forums have come to realize more and more that, while the Communications Decency Act protects providers of online internet service from defamation lawsuits, it does not protect the actual posters of defamatory comments.  As such, people who thought they were posting anonymously on the internet have increasingly found that they can in fact be held responsible for their actions.073008cohen24JD

One of the best examples of this phenomenon is in the case of Liskula Cohen (pictured right), who in January of 2009 sued Google in order to uncover the identity of the owner of the blog “Skanks in NYC,” which was operated by Google.  Cohen, who is a fashion model, had discovered that the anonymous writer of the blog had posted numerous defamatory comments, calling Cohen a “skank,” an “old hag,” and a “a psychotic, lying whore.”  On August 17, 2009, Judge Joan A. Madden of the Supreme Court of the State of New York issued an opinion ordering Google to reveal the name of the blogger.

The court, in a fabulous argument involving the American Heritage Dictionary definition of the words “skank” and “ho,” stated that the descriptions by the blogger of Cohen as a “skank” and a “ho” constituted an assertion that Cohen was sexually promiscuous.  The court ruled that therefore these statements were not opinions but a statement of provable facts.  As such, the court reasoned, if the facts posted by the blogger could be proven to be incorrect, they could most certainly be construed as defamatory to Cohen’s character.  The court essentially ruled that Cohen had enough of a defamation case against the anonymous blogger that it was necessary and proper to compel Google to reveal the blogger’s name.  As such, Cohen is now suing the blogger, who turned out to be 29 year old fashion student Rosemary Port for $3 million.  Not surprisingly, the two had encountered each other before in the fashion scene, and had reportedly had an altercation involving Port’s ex-boyfriend.

In her ruling, Madden rejected the idea that blogs “serve as a modern-day forum for conveying personal opinions, including invective and ranting,” and cited the opinion of a Virginia Court, which stated that “in that the Internet provides a virtually unlimited, inexpensive, and almost immediate means of communication with tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people, the dangers of its misuse cannot be ignored” and that “the protection of the right to communicate anonymously must be balanced against the need to assure that those persons who choose to abuse the opportunities presented by this medium can be made to answer for such transgressions.”  In this argument Madden acknowledged the vast potential of the internet but at the same time asserted that it cannot serve as a lawless abyss of anonymity.  Madden’s argument was that blogs cannot be considered exempt from defamatory lawsuits and that individuals must be held accountable for their actions online.  At the same time though, Madden argued that it is necessary to strike a balance between accountability and the protection of anonymous free speech.

And indeed, this issue is certainly a question of balance.  For her part, Rosemary Port is suing Google for $15 million for revealing her name, claiming that she is being persecuted for her opinions and that Google violated her privacy by revealing her identity.  In the suit Port’s attorney claims that her Constitutional right to anonymous free speech under the first amendment was violated.  In his argument, Port’s attorney compares Port’s anonymous “Skanks in NYC” blog to the Federalist Papers, which were written under pseudonyms, and upon which the very foundation of our society was based. This connection is dubious.

In the end, this issue is a question of where one draws the line.  Is it necessary for global democracy and free speech that Rosemary Port be allowed to call Liskula Cohen a whoring skank without any consequences? I think most people would say probably not.  It’s hard to argue that protecting people like Port from defamation lawsuits was what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment.  It is clear that internet users like Port certainly are not motivated by Barlow’s notion of “ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonweal.”  Without a doubt, there are individuals who use the screen of online anonymity to say hateful, disgusting things that can be incredibly harmful.  The Skanks in NYC case does appear to demonstrate however that anonymous posters online are becoming decidedly less anonymous as time goes on.  It is possible that, in the end, the posters of morally reprehensible content online will be just as immediately identifiable and accountable as those who perform morally reprehensible actions in the real world.  However, there is a certain truth to the fact that the internet has provided a vital platform for anonymous free speech and the dissemination of information.  Without a doubt, the internet has provided a way for those who are oppressed or censored to both receive information and to spread the news of their plight. The tradeoff between anonymity and accountability, while necessary to a certain degree, definitely lies on a very slippery slope.  It remains to be seen how far down that slope we as a society are willing to go.

Two Sides, One Coin: Free Speech and Web Vigilantism in China – by “Chuen-Yee C”

Vigilantism

One of the most well known cases of web vigilantism in China occurred earlier this year when Jiang Nan jumped 24 floors to her death. Before she committed suicide, she wrote multiple blog entries describing the details of her husband’s affair. Chinese netizens, eager to see justice served, tracked down and publicized photos and personal information of her husband and his lover. Jiang Nan’s husband, Wang Fei, an advertising agency executive, suffered extensive invasion of his privacy and was subsequently fired from his job.  Ironically, this alarming example of a peer-surveillance state in action seems to have its roots in the exercise of free speech.

Despite the staggering changes toward modernization that have occurred, Chinese value systems have yet to modernize in line with the country’s evolving posture toward capitalism and its cooperation with the global economy. There are now an estimated 137 million Internet users in China, and the Internet has had a profound effect on the Chinese way of life and the predominantly traditional values it has embodied for over two thousand years. However, the explicit confrontation between distinctively Chinese values and the Western values of free expression and the free flow of information that drive the Internet has resulted in a dramatic conflict.

Web vigilantism is a common problem rife in all societies with access to the Internet, but is a particularly alarming phenomenon in East Asian countries, especially China. On social networking sites, blogs, and other Web 2.0 platforms, destructive groups can publish sensitive information, from private matters to personal information. These groups often threaten forms of physical violence and send damaging statements about victims to employers and manipulate search engines to highlight those statements for business associates and clients to see.

Incidents of “web lynching” and the “human flesh/renrou search engine” 人肉搜索 in East Asian countries, most notably China, demonstrate the underpinnings of a larger social and cultural problem. Acts of vigilantism on the Internet have destroyed the reputations of victims, corroded their privacy, and impaired victims’ abilities to participate in online and offline activities. The benefits of the Internet have left their mark especially in the realm of economic and financial development, but social harm has resulted from the sudden explosion of traditional values operating on a mass scale. While Confucian principles have deeply shaped both the Chinese hypersocial environment and sense of justice, the Internet has enabled transcendence of traditional social roles and a cost-effective means to collective action. These factors have combined to contribute substantially to the trend of extreme Internet vigilantism, digital witch hunts some have dubbed the “New Red Guard.

The Chinese government’s “pro-morality” stance has not deterred vigilantes and may indeed have worsened the situation. At the same time, most of the government’s efforts to promote “social harmony” on the web lay in mass censoring and filtering mechanisms—efforts that mostly center around limiting the freedom of political speech. In protecting Chinese citizens from each other would it be better to implement a more benign approach by imposing checks through tradition and thought, or does the answer lay in restructuring social norms through the law? China’s unique history and social culture mean that traditional Western approaches may not work and could even worsen the situation.

Wang Fei recently won his suit against the blogger who released his wife’s diary online and the website that published his personal information. This verdict sets an important precedent for future online vigilante victim cases, but China’s current legal system is only able to help victims attain meager compensation on a case-by-case victim; Wang Fei’s total awards totaled less than $1,000USD.  While laws could be reformed to adequately address victim compensation, efforts to control Internet vigilantism in China should also reflect a commitment to reforming citizen behavior online. In order to structure an appropriate solution that minimizes attacks on individual citizens while promoting the use of renrou as a check on political corruption , Chinese legislative and political powers must understand the relationship between China’s hypersocial environment, Confucian and traditional values, and the Internet’s influence on group behavior.

Anonymous Speech: Harmful Enough for Regulation? – by “Marcus M”

The Internet offers users the possibility of anonymity, which allows people to act elusively and namelessly across its vast series of tubes. While online, individuals can use aliases to mask their identities or even to design entire virtual “second lives.” While users do leave their IPs behind, they trust that host sites will safeguard this information, which can be used to reveal their true identities. The power afforded by the Internet’s identity-obscuration has a variety of effects on speech.

One of these effects has been to encourage the expression of otherwise detestable speech. Of the belief that their identities will not be uncovered, individuals may feel enabled by their online anonymity to post material they deem too offensive, provocative, or legally dubious to express in the real world. This effect has manifested itself in countless instances of online hate speech and cyberbullying, both of which can cause tangible harm to their targets. This potential for real harm raises the following question: Can the veil of anonymity enjoyed by Internet users be justifiably removed for the sake of a citizen’s protection?

This is the question posed to the Cook County Circuit Court in a recent case regarding “deeply disturbing” comments made online about the 15-year-old son of Buffalo Grove, IL Village Trustee Lisa Stone. Under the alias “Hipcheck 16,” an individual posted the comments in response to an article written in the Daily Herald on April 6, the day before Village Board elections. Stone went to court to ask Judge Jeffrey Lawrence to give her the identity of Hipcheck 16. The judge did acquire the user’s identity, but he did not relay it to Stone, at least not yet. On November 9, Stone’s attorneys and the anonymous poster’s attorney will present their arguments before the judge, who will then decide whether or not to provide Stone with Hipcheck16’s identity.

ACLU spokesman Ed Yohnka weighed in on the case, saying that anonymous speech is an integral part of our society, and must be protected. Noting the anonymously published texts by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine, Yohnka pointed out the importance of anonymous speech in the early stages of America’s independence. The case would have broad application to online speech rights, since few cases like it have appeared in American courts, and could possibly restrict the ability of citizens to speak anonymously.

But it seems that this point ignores the capacity of the law to draw a distinction between acceptable and unacceptable anonymous speech. The type of speech Yohnka wishes to protect would be legally protected – however nasty, political speech by definition targets the state and its occupants, not fellow private citizens. There do already exist protections for anonymous speech, but these do not cover defamatory and other speech considered illegal in normal circumstances.

The various contributing lawyers seem to neglect Stone’s main concern in seeking Hipcheck16’s true identity. She sees the case as primarily about the “need to protect children from being attacked on the Internet.” This bring to mind the incident last year of a mother posing as a teenage boy on MySpace, who taunted a 14-year-old girl to the extent that she committed suicide.

While certainly an extreme example, this incident demonstrates to me the necessity of at least some laws governing how individuals interact with one another on the Internet. When there is significant, tangible harm done unto a person by another user, I think there should be punitive action taken against that user, beginning, of course, with his identification. The policy behind this would have to be written sufficiently clear as to not deter anonymous speakers in general. Otherwise, the anonymous political speakers whom the ACLU seeks to protect will suffer. What a surprise: a big obstacle is determining the appropriate language for a law.

Free Speech Online? Talk to me about Net Neutrality! – by “Evin M”

Without a new law protecting net neutrality, we're trusting dinosaurs like Sen. Ted Stevens and obselete case law to control free speech and govern technological platforms to which they do not apply...also I thought this was funny and tried in earnest to make it link to my blog post about free speech. from http://www.terminally-incoherent.com

At the end of September, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski unveiled a plan for net neutrality.  This set of rules solidifies the role of internet service providers as pizza guys and not as news networks—that is to say it explicitly disallows blocking or slowing access to specific applications or services.  Net neutrality keeps the “tubes” free from the prying eyes and interests of those who deliver the info packets to consumers, thus allowing free speech to not only occur but to be disseminated.  The proposed rules uphold the four pillars of network neutrality, which allow consumers to access any lawful online content, application, or services with any legal device in an environment that has sufficient competition among network, content, application, and service providers.  It also adds two more basic principles: ISPs will not be able to discriminate against certain applications or information and they must be transparent about their network management practices.

Senator Olympia Snowe and Senator Byron Dorgan are teaming up with Chairman Genachowski, and have begun to discuss legislation that would help scoot along the proposed net neutrality rules.  Dorgan, the senior member of the Commerce Committee, suggested that the congressional contribution to the initial network neutrality efforts could include some deadlines, to help move the process of adoption along.  The good political feelings might extend across the aisle, thanks to an olive branch extended by Chairman Genachowski which halted the development of a Republican-sponsored amendment that would tie up FCC funding.  That bill however, produced in angry response to the GOP’s disapproval of net neutrality, didn’t have much of a chance because of the Democrat’s hold on the senate majority.

Senate support has also been joined with a thumbs up from representatives of corporate world as Amazon, Facebook, and Google have voiced their approval of these rules in a letter to the FCC earlier today.  They make a pretty good point about net neutrality, suggesting that it will allow more applications to be developed and shared because creators will not be deterred by the possibility of having their content blocked or sidelined.  However, the approval is not universal.  AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon have spearheaded the opposition force, citing, among other things, the difficulties of net neutrality in a wireless interface.

We’re in dire need of some governmental commentary on free speech and the web, as the Red Lion v. FCC case becomes increasingly obsolete.  This case, as Prof. Jack Balkin described today in class, relies heavily on the fact that sound information policy is premised on people’s role as passive information consumers.  Before Web 2.0, they didn’t have the opportunity to easily become active producers of knowledge with a readily accessible audience which includes other content producers.  With the entire business model of today’s new media grounded strongly in a participatory consumer culture, we can no longer apply the rules of the game from when media was a one-sided discussion.