Why I post censorship workarounds

Does posting censorship workarounds help the censors? That's the question I've been mulling for the last few days. I asked for your comments, and the verdict is in: Almost no one thinks we should keep these tricks to ourselves. I agree.

Does posting censorship workarounds help the censors? That's the question I've been mulling for the last few days. I asked for your comments, and the verdict is in: Almost no one thinks we should keep these tricks to ourselves. I agree.

I started grappling with this question after I posted a now-defunct workaround for Mainlanders to access the still-blocked Chinese language Wikipedia. After a commenter posted the link on Sinobyte, I featured the link in the post. Then the commenter, Ted Chien, wrote me concerned that having the workaround posted would lead to the authorities blocking it. I took down the link temporarily and resolved to seek other opinions about whether workarounds should be publicized.

Ted, who is Secretary of Wikimedia Taiwan but emphasizes that he does not speak for the organization, told me that soon after he had made the comment he heard from friends in Guangzhou, Xiamen, and Shanghai that the hole had been plugged. Soon after that, access ceased from my connections in Beijing. He said he doesn't know if the block is related to the link appearing on Sinobyte, but he would regret alerting the authorities if that were the case.

This particular debate may be both moot and a cautionary tale. After all, me posting the link (which I have restored just now) may have been part of the cause for the block. On the other hand, it's likely the link appears on other sites and it could have been detected directly by authorities even before it was published.

In the end, however, commenters and colleagues in various branches of the China technology world unanimously responded to my call for comments with support for publishing workarounds. I articulate my argument for posting them at length in my previous post , but for me it comes down to this: As a journalist and member of the online community, I feel it would be unacceptably selfish to keep to myself the means to open information. If I heard about it, it wouldn't be hard for authorities to hear about it. And if they fight back against our workarounds, we'll find more.

I am sympathetic to concerns of those like Ted Chien, but barring any danger to individuals, I think it's more important to share tools to assist in global discussions than to protect them against government detection. This argument holds an embedded assumption that makes me a little uncomfortable: that is, that my U.S.-born affection for absolute freedom of speech is more right than the belief that the government should keep an eye on public discourse.

Why does this make me uncomfortable? As much as I believe the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has been positive for the United States, a large portion of Chinese citizens do indeed believe that some censorship is necessary, and that the government should do it. Deborah Fallows found in a major public opinion poll that 80 percent of respondents said the internet should not be totally open. Depending on how you ask the question -- say, do you include child porn -- you may get similar numbers from the United States. But data doesn't support the common assumption that Chinese people all want a wide open internet.

I'm going to keep posting workarounds and tell myself that it's for the benefit of people who share my desire to read things from China, not for the sake of promoting my sense that the internet ought to be wide open.

About the author

    Formerly a journalist and consultant in Beijing, Graham Webster is a graduate student studying East Asia at Harvard University. At Sinobyte, he follows the effects of technology on Chinese politics, the environment, and global affairs. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network, and is not an employee of CNET. Disclosure.

     

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