The Great Firewall of China Gets Metaphorical

For the Guardian, John Naughton comments on Perry Link’s recent essay about Internet censorship in China and asks whether a new metaphor is needed to replace “The Great Firewall”:

Why, asks Link, “do censors not play it safe and immediately block anything that comes anywhere near offending Beijing? Why the modulation and the fine-tuning?”

Why indeed? This is where metaphor comes in. Our view of Chinese internet censorship is shaped by one particular metaphor – “the great firewall of China”. Actually, this is a metaphor inside a metaphor because the word “firewall” means different things to different people. To a builder, it’s a wall or partition designed to inhibit or prevent the spread of fire. To a computer scientist, on the other hand, a firewall is a piece of software designed to prevent unauthorised or unwanted communications between computer networks or hosts: it decides what data packets are allowed in from the network, and what are allowed out, and it is in this sense that the “great firewall” is generally understood.

To some extent, it’s helpful. Firewall-type activity does indeed describe aspects of the Chinese approach to the internet. But it’s been obvious for a while that the subtlety of the regime’s approach to managing the network has gone way beyond the binary allow/disallow nature of the firewall metaphor. [Source]

Link’s article, which is based largely on CDT’s Directives from the Ministry of Truth series, also mentions that pro-government Internet commentators are sometimes prisoners who write messages supporting the government in exchange for reduced sentences. Charlie Custer of Tech in Asia picked up this fact for a brief post:

But I wonder if the revelation that some of the pro-government commenters online are prisoners is likely to make China’s net users any more friendly towards them. After all, it’s easy to understand why somebody would be willing to post propaganda if the alternative is more hard time. [Source]

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