Across the world, internet users remain concerned — probably increasingly so — about what it might mean to lose control over their personal information online. In the United States, these fears may translate into efforts to make personal data more secure and even less permanent, through efforts such as the Do Not Track movement and advocacy to re-examine dated policies about email privacy. In China, where the government’s surveillance and control over the internet is arguably peerless, users are of course concerned about privacy — but also about the government erasing their accounts and data forever.
Recently in The Guardian, Chinese author Murong Xuecun wrote about the experience of having his social media accounts deleted by the Chinese government because of his views and writing. (Helen Gao, a friend and China-based writer who contributed to one of my previous blog posts translated it.) I’ve highlighted a few of his observations about China’s internet censorship below, and I highly suggest reading the whole article:
“Almost every department and dignitary can order internet companies to delete information and accounts while they themselves hide in the dark. Seeing speeches that trigger their ire, they can make them disappear for ever by simply picking up the telephone receiver.”
“Netizens often compare being silenced on the Chinese internet to being put to death, and registering a new account is likened to reincarnation. Most Weibo [a Twitter-like service in China] users are familiar with the term “the Reincarnation party”. It has come to symbolise people’s resistance and struggle against censors. Every member of the party shares the same experience: being killed, and reincarnated; killed again, reincarnated again….The record-holder is a user named ‘Repair.’ As of 13 May, she has reincarnated 418 times. If she is unable to use that name, she will become ‘Re-pair,’ ‘Repare’ or ‘ReIpair.’”
“My next reincarnation is going to be more difficult. The Chinese government makes sure its internet technology keeps pace with the times, which leaves me effectively no loophole to exploit. On the morning of 13 May, I attempted to re-register on Weibo, and after an hour of typing almost 30 versions of verification codes, I still couldn’t get registered. My IP address, which is static, has been blocked. Registering a new account would require a verification code to be sent to a mobile number. I have only one mobile phone, which has similarly been blocked.”
Murong Xuecun’s experience paints a picture of an internet that defies dissidents’ workaround solutions and where the government and users are trying to out-innovate one another. For me, the issue of Chinese internet freedom is interesting for two reasons. One, it raises the question of how the Chinese government will handle dissent and protest as the country continues to evolve socially and economically — right now, incidents like these seem to suggest that the government is hoping for a very literal version of “the more things change, the more they stay the same” adage.
Second, when it comes to internet issues more broadly, China’s internet is unique in the scope of its control and the manpower the government puts behind this project (possibly up to 100,000 workers, according to The Economist). “The party has achieved something few had thought possible: the construction of a distinct national internet,” an April Economist article argues, making the case that China challenges the view that the internet facilitates democracy (Evgeny Morozov and Rebecca MacKinnon are also well worth reading on this point).
As the censorship issue continues to be battled out on China’s computers, tensions between the U.S. and China over cyberattacks loom large, making it unlikely that internet freedom and human rights issues will come to play a prominent role on the bilateral cyberissues agenda.