While I was in China, the top subject people in west asked me about was censorship. It was difficult to fully answer because we were talking mostly on Twitter. Many people have obvious misconceptions about how bad it is. At one point someone tweeted: Are you being filtered from saying sensitive things?" I Tweeted back and said: "You mean like human rights in Tibet?" Came the reply "Yes, exactly."
There is little doubt that censorship exists in China and it is an annoyance. But how much of an annoyance is really a subject of debate. As I've mentioned a couple of times, most people who live there seem to agree with what Kaiser Kuo [Twitter: @KaiserKuo] told the China 2.0 group of western bloggers: "We are happy with the Internet we have." As Robert Scoble [Twitter:@scobleizer ]observed, censorship in China "is just about like what happens when you work for a company in the US. There are certain things you simply cannot say." When Robert and I collaborated on Naked Conversations, he was working at Microsoft. When I emailed him there, I had to write "N*ked Conversations to get through the corporate spam/porn filters." The point is that we both knew what we were talking about and it was easy to work around the problem.
My little Twitter example shows that there are work arounds, Twitter being one example of a social media technology being too fast and too content plentiful to be closely watched for a single post. At dinner one night, Ernst Jan Pfauth typed into Google "Tienanmen Square Massacre" and got the 19-year-old story of troops killing about 400 students. A minute later he typed in "Falun Gong," the banned religious group and got blocked. The block lated about 10 minutes then he was free to surf again.
I spoke with a woman who used her workplace team blog to mention a famous dissident and the site went down for three days. Her employer asked her not to write such things again. She was not fired. No storm troopers came busting down doors and her life did not change in any other way. Compare that with the 2005 story of Mark Jen a Google employee who was fired for blogging some downside observations about Google's finances. There is a difference.
In the latter case there is a sensitive employer. In the former, there is a sensitive government. In the latter, the worst thing that could happen was the blogger got sacked. In China, in rare cases, where a blogger persisted in testing the government's will, there have been imprisonments. But such reaction is not an everyday occurrence and social media people do not live in constant fear of their doors being kicked down in the night. It just doesn't happen that way.
In fact, for a small minority of bloggers, there is some status in pushing the envelope. I talked with two bloggers who boasted about how many times they had been blocked. One told me it would be "cool" if he actually got arrested. I asked him if he was trying to be a voice of freedom and he smiled, "No, but getting popped would get me a ton of followers."
Most of the people we met would not choose that course of action. Their interest in social media is along business lines and social media for business reasons is still quite small. Most social media is used to discuss personal matters. The most popular social media site i China by far is Tencent QQ, which is mostly chat. There is an emergence of online games, surrounded by online community functionality. Andrew Lih [Twitter: @fuzheado ], a new media researcher who is just completing a book on Wikipedia told us that with 70 million users, bulletin boards are more than twice as popular as blogs at 25 million and growing faster. Why, because "for a variety of reasons, Chinese still prefer anonymity," Andrew said. I have to assume one of those reasons involves government's watchful eye.
During this brain-expanding China 2.0 tour, our small band of bloggers met with over a hundred Web 2.0 people and more than 20 of China's most promising Web 2.0 companies. We heard a few examples of how China government policies can be frustrating.
For example, after a slow start, Google.com has captured over one-third of the search market against the China-based incumbent Baidu. But Kai-Fu Lee, co-president for Google Greater China told us there will be no GMail in the foreseeable future, because Google would be unable to protect user data from the government. If Google wants to do business in China, it must comply with government requirements, so it just doesn’t gather the data it would need. We later learned another government inspired oddity. Google satellite views do not line up with Google Maps. Why? No one is quite sure, other than it’s a government requirement.
Two of my favorite meetings were with the founding CEOs of two highly successful homegrown China rivals Youku & Tudou. They are rivals in the exploding internet video market. Each company posts about 40,000 new videos daiy. One-third to one-fourth of them are user-generated. Both companies, I was told later, must employ people who are employed to watch thousand of UCG clips of up to 10 minutes each before they can be posted online. This is the only way to ensure that they content will not incur the wrath of government censors who could warn either company, shut down either company and even ensure that senior team members never work again for a Web 2.0 company.
Examples like these demonstrate that censorship can be a major hemorrhoid to the China tech community, but it is not the Orwellian horror that so many Westerners seem to think it is.
And sheer numbers seem to make it a lessening problem. We are told there are 30,000 Chinese censors, not just for the internet, but for movies, books, television, newspapers, pornography--all content that may offend those who decide what should be offensive. Many people in China doubt that number, and I could find no way to confirm it.
But lets assume for a minute that the number is accurate. Look at the math. There are 25 million people who post on blogs at least once monthly, probably more. Facebook is estimated to have another 20 million. There are hundreds of thousands of posts going up in China video sites, not to mention Western sites like Twitter, FriendFeed and so on. This would mean that there are as many as a million posts a day, tens of thousands of minutes of video and these numbers are growing at exponential rates.
There are just too much content for so few watchful eyes. Controlling what is posted on the internet in China is becoming very much like baling water with a rake.
There are just too many voices to be quelled in the log run, or so it seems to me.