Does the Great Firewall Shape China’s Internet Habits? (Update)

The complex technical and legislative framework to restrict and monitor information in cyberspace has been in the works since the Internet arrived in China in 1994. The infamous system brings together an array of censorship methods, and is currently thought to be the most sophisticated censorship network in the world. The most notorious part of this complex system is known globally as the “Great Firewall of China,” and it is responsible for blocking access inside China to selected websites. In a 2010 speech on Internet freedom, then U.S. Secretary of State warned of a spreading “information curtain” in which “viral videos and blog posts are becoming the samizdat of our day,” hinting at the beginnings of a digital cold war. Clinton’s comments were quickly rebuffed by Beijing.

Efforts to strictly control communication in the digital age — what Global Voices co-founder Rebecca MacKinnon has called “networked authoritarianism” — have been assumed to influence the way that Chinese netizens interact with the Internet (a theory easily given weight by the emergence of subversive web phenomena such as e-gao). However, a new study by two graduate students at Northwestern University argues that cultural factors have more impact on web usage than does censorship. Below is the abstract for “How Does the Great Firewall of China Affect Online User Behavior,” by PhD candidates Harsh Taneja and Angela Xiao Wu:

Internet access blockage is widely understood to isolate Chinese Internet users and “balkanize”
the Internet. Drawing from the literature on global cultural consumption, we question this
assumption and argue that online user behavior is structured by cultural factors. We develop a
framework that integrates access blockage with other structural factors to explain web users’
choices. Analyzing online audience traffic among the 1000 most visited websites globally, we
find that websites cluster according to language and geography. Chinese websites constitute one
cluster, which resembles other such geo-linguistic clusters in terms of both its composition and
degree of isolation. Our study demonstrates that cultural proximity has a greater role than access blockage in shaping people’s web usage. It also calls for sociological investigation of the impact of Internet blockage.


MIT Technology Review summarizes the new study’s findings and its methodology, before drawing attention to its faults and siding with the counter-argument:

[…]And herein lies the biggest problem with the study by Taneja and Xiao Wu—it fails to take proper account of the behaviour of Chinese-speaking people who are outside of the Great Firewall of China but able to access content within it. It is easy to imagine that this relatively small group acts as the glue that links the Chinese cluster to the rest of the world.

If that’s the case, then the cultural fault lines created by the Great Firewall are hidden in this data.

It may well be that cultural factors are an important influence on people’s surfing habits, possibly the most important influence. But the argument that censorship is somehow less significant because of this is insidious and dangerous. On this matter, Hillary Clinton was correct.


Update: The authors of the Northwestern study have brought more recent coverage of their work to the attention of . While the authors have “many reservations” with the MIT Technology Review’s summary of their study, they feel that coverage from the “represents [their] main findings and arguments properly”:

[…]Taneja and Wu make a compelling point that state censorship of messages within the Chinese Internet, such as government filtering on Weibo, could ultimately impact freedom of speech far more than the highly-hyped content blocking. Basically, Chinese Internet users would be more likely to encounter that material, so its absence is more conspicuous. Considering the volume of Chinese censorship, it would be conspicuous anyway: A recent study found the government takes down 12 percent of all messages sent on Weibo, with an eye for political subjects.

“Compared to removing the [Great Firewall] of China, on which most policy, popular, and scholarly discourse tends to concentrate, battling against content censorship over domestic websites may bring about much more substantial changes in what Chinese people make use of on the Internet,” they write. [Source]

Click through to read the Washington Post’s look at Taneja and Wu’s new study in its entirety.

Also see prior CDT coverage of Internet censorship and the Great Firewall, and The Economist’s in-depth special report “China’s Internet: A Giant Cage“.

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