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Interview mit Rebecca MacKinnon

Interview mit Rebecca MacKinnon

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Rebecca MacKinnon is a former CNN journalist who headed the CNN bureaus in Beijing and Tokyo. MacKinnon later left television to become a blogger and co-founder of Global Voices Online. She is on the Board of Directors of the Global Network Initiative and the Committee to Protect Journalists. Her new book “Consent of the Networked” shows that it is time to stop arguing over whether the Internet empowers people, and address the urgent question of how technology should be governed to support the rights and liberties of users around the world.

Rebecca MacKinnon: “We need to work hard for global Internet standards”

What are the main Social Media services used in China and what is known about their user base?

The top Chinese social media services in China are QZone (owned by Tencent), Tencent Weibo (a microblogging service like Twitter), Sina Weibo (also a microblogging service like Twitter), Renren (social networking site) and (also social networking site). Tencent is China’s "social media empire" – its services count 700 million users, more than the total of Chinese Internet users reported by the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC). Sina Weibo, the most influential microblogging site in China, has over 300 million users who generate 100 million posts per day according to Sina’s unaudited financial report.

Can you give some examples of how the Chinese government exerts control over social networks and other social media such as (micro)blogs?

China’s censorship system is complex and multilayered. The outer layer is generally known as the “great firewall” of China, through which hundreds of thousands of websites are blocked from view on the Chinese Internet. These blocks can be circumvented by people who know how to use anti-censorship software tools. It is impossible to conduct accurate usage surveys, but it is believed likely that hundreds of thousands of Chinese Internet users deploy these tools to access Twitter and Facebook every day. Fortunately for the government, there are plenty of social networking platforms and other delightfully entertaining and useful services on the Chinese Internet to keep people occupied, without much need to access sites and services based overseas – assuming they have no interest in politics, religion or human rights issues. These domestic companies are the stewards and handmaidens, the tools and enforcers, of China’s inner layer of Internet censorship. The government requires companies operating inside China to use a combination of computer algorithms as well as human editors to identify objectionable material and remove it from the Internet completely. Companies that fail to obey government orders face different grades of punishment: from warnings or stiff fines to temporary shutdowns or revocation of the company’s business license. This requirement of corporate self-censorship applies to all Chinese websites, from small online communities to the largest commercial sites, like Baidu. It also applies to all foreign Internet companies with operations inside China – including before Google decided to pull out.

How does Chinese state censorship on the Internet work?

In China there is no transparency or public accountability when it comes to how information networks are shaped, operated, regulated and policed. This total opacity, plus government co-optation of the private sector in carrying out political censorship and surveillance, are the key components of what I call China’s networked authoritarianism. The key to the system’s success is that the regime does not try to control everybody all the time; its controls on political information are nonetheless effective enough that most Chinese – including educated elites – are unaware, or have a distorted view, of many issues and events in their own country, let alone in the rest of the world. According to the Dui Hua Foundation, a China-focused human rights research and advocacy organization, in 2008 (the year of the Beijing Olympics) the number of people sentenced for “endangering state security” – the most common charge used in cases of political, religious, or ethnic dissent – more than doubled for the second time in three years. Since then, political arrests have remained substantially higher than in the 1990s, when few Chinese people had Internet access. Thanks to censorship, the average person rarely encounters information about these types of arrests. A networked authoritarian regime benefits from the lively online discussion of many social issues and even policy problems. The government follows online chatter, which alerts officials to potential unrest, better enabling authorities to address issues and problems before they get out of control.

What can people, governments, and NGOs working for freedom of expression and information do about it?

Actually, unless and until Chinese companies and the Chinese people decide that they want change, and are willing to take the risks to fight censorship directly, there is very little that foreigners can do about it. All that people outside China can do is to: a) insist on corporate responsibility by multinational companies doing business in China and everywhere else; b) work as hard as possible for global Internet standards, practices, laws, and regulations that make the global Internet as open and interconnected as possible; c) fight for strong privacy protections everywhere and d) fight against blanket and unaccountable surveillance by any government against all Internet users everywhere.

Parts of the interview are reprinted from Rebecca MacKinnon´s book Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle For Internet Freedom, by Rebecca MacKinnon. Available from Basic Books. © 2012

Sherry Basta
Sebastian Haselbeck
Sherry Basta
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