Rethinking Censorship

I’ve long been intrigued by the issue of censorship in China. I think it’s an issue that’s often over simplified here in the states. We tend to think of Chinese censorship as a blanket redaction of certain so-called heretical thoughts, when in fact there’s much more nuance to examine. But there was research published in 2013 that indicated that Chinese censors crack down on calls to assemble and protest more than incendiary words against the government.

I also find some merit to the argument that since the Chinese know the materials they ingest are censored, they evaluate information with a more critical eye than even those members of a free society do. It’s also widely known that there are various clever ways around the restrictions.

This recent New Yorker article, Travels with My Censor is a thoughtful and personal account of an American author whose work is available for purchase in mainland China. The author, Peter Hessler, went on a week-long book tour with the man who censors his work for publication in that country.

The following excerpt is especially illuminating:

[…] Western commentary about censorship often turns inward, portraying limitations in other countries in a way that celebrates our own values. One of the most striking qualities of foreign portrayals of censorship in China is the apparent lack of interest in Chinese readers and editors. Two of the most prominent recent feature stories about the censorship of foreign books—long pieces in the Times and in the South China Morning Post—fail to include a single comment by a reader in China. Neither quotes a Chinese editor by name. The articles have not been censored, of course, but nevertheless each has a gaping hole at its center. As long as Chinese readers remain unknown, and editors appear shadowy and symbolic, it’s difficult to understand them or to feel much sympathy.

In the West, there’s a tendency to approach censorship with a high-handedness that would seem inappropriate if applied to other issues of development, like poverty. There may in fact be more similarities than we realize. The drive for improved access to information, which includes education, contact with new ideas, and freedom of expression, is at least as complex as everything that it takes to improve living standards. A term like “self-censorship,” which is a favorite in the West, puts the blame on individuals in ways that may not be right. There’s no economic equivalent—we don’t have a neat two-word phrase that describes the things that poor people supposedly do to perpetuate their own poverty.

I realize that I lack the first-hand experience to speak on this issue with any authority, much like the aforementioned writers for the Times and South China Morning Post. But I can at least point out our contradictory credos and gross over simplification on the topics of free speech and censorship in China.

Freedom of Speech Must Include the License to Offend?

The second-ever Intelligence Squared U.S. debate was about this motion: Freedom of speech must include the license to offend.

It aired in 2006, less than eleven months after the Danish Muhammad cartoons controversy {wikipedia}.

The debate featured Christopher Hitchens and a bunch of other knowledgable folks, including a cartoonist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

It’s a great debate and well worth a re-listen in wake of the tragedy at the offices of Charlie Hebdo.

Be Careful What You Comment On

This podcast episode touches on one of the most important frontiers of free speech in the Internet age, and I’m not exaggerating or being hyperbolic.

When speech about one topic/company/product is chilled, its affects are wider than that single act of speech.

From the New Tech City episode about free speech in the comment section:

This week on New Tech City we bring you a cautionary tale of e-commerce, fine print, and the drastic measures some online retailers will take to protect their reputations, even at the expense of consumers. In part two of our podcast, we explore how a court case over bad Yelp reviews might affect much wider online free speech. It gets extreme. It gets ugly. And it’s going to keep happening as the reputation economy keeps growing.

The issue is this: Retailers get nailed by a bad review. Sometimes it’s honest, sometimes it’s exaggerated, and sometimes the bad review is flat out false and defamatory. But either way, it hurts business. So retailers are trying various ways to stop the reviews from happening: from unfounded financial fees, to extreme copyright claims about the very right to post a review about an experience, to totally justifiable defamation lawsuits.

The one thing this episode doesn’t touch on that is extremely relevant is Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation—or SLAPP suits {on the media}.