Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Internet Freedoms in China - Part 2 of 3

Has the use of mass media in China and Singapore changed over time, or have new technologies simply been used to further traditional mass media enterprise?
Dr. Chin-fu Hung of the National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan reminds us that the mass media has traditionally been used by authoritarian governments as tools of propaganda (20). China may not be specifically generating propaganda, but by disallowing any idea opposed to the ruling political party, a silent form of propaganda is maintained. Repressing the political ideas of those who do not absolutely agree with the Four Cardinal Principles creates a reinforcing cycle of ignorance. Pioneers, scholars and youth who may have novel ideas do not get to share them and simultaneously, those who may be interested in their ideas do not get access to them. The amount of academic, socio-cultural and political information in the country's circulation is stagnated as long as it represents the ancient views of the ruling party which has been in power for the recent history of China’s self-governance . While technological advance may continue in such an environment, it does not benefit from the creative participation of society.

Singapore's political propaganda comes in the form of its restrictive policies on electoral campaigning via the internet. Survey and poll data can no longer be published for campaign purposes as of 2001, as supported by the Minister for Information and the Arts, Lee Yock Suan. In a public speech to Parliament, Suan claimed that surveys and polls "gave the illusion of reflecting public opinion but were often based on small sample sizes, bad question design and improper sampling, which led to inaccurate and slanted results" (Gomez 137). Those in opposition saw this as an attempt to curb the success of their campaigns; however the more important issue is that without what few objective polls may have existed, the information provided by the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) will likely be biased. Biased information purported to be objective public opinion is essentially masked propaganda and at any rate, an even cloudier illusion.

In addition to censorship of political and socio-cultural ideas, both China and Singapore use filtering systems to screen information incoming to their networks, before it ever reaches internet users. OpenNet Initiative is a non-partisan organization that studies internet filtering and surveillance practices in countries across the globe. According to their website OpenNet.net, China has allocated billions of dollars to building one of the largest and most advanced filtering systems in the world. The studies also reveal that the Chinese government focuses resources on restricting access to any content that potentially undermines the state's control or social stability, by enforcing strict supervision of domestic media, imposing liability on online content providers, and increasingly, a propaganda approach to online debate and discussion (OpenNet.net). James Gomez summons us to consider which one of these national priorities are threatened by the gay and lesbian community. In 2001, the Chinese government proposed the use of website-rating systems as an additional measure of over-reaching oversight. In Hong Kong, the most internet-liberal region of China, the government began rating websites representing the gay and lesbian community as "harmful media" and required that this rating be displayed on the websites by the owners. Filtering software for minors was also required to be installed by the owners, with imprisonment as a consequence of refusal (Gomez 135). These measures are inappropriately harsh, as they do not address the stated priorities of national and public security. In its effort to create and maintain social stability, the Chinese government is enforcing a cultural mandate that not only shelters its society without society members’ consideration but also oppresses a part of that society.

The Chinese government has no intention of performing all filtering tasks on its own. Website hosts are installing keyword filtering software under pressure, and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) as well as Internet Content Providers (ICPs) also filter “politically sensitive" websites (Chung 734). ISPs and ICPs gain access to the internet through inter-connecting networks created during the Golden Bridge Project. The networks are owned by the government, so the ISPs and ICPs are forced to cooperate with the government in order to stay in business. Along with internet café owners, they are entrusted to report anyone involved in the creation, replication, retrieval and transmission of information that falls under nine categories. These categories include material that spreads rumors, promote cults and feudal superstitions, and materials that insult or slander others (Hung 11-12). It seems that for every appropriate measure taken by the Chinese government, another politically inconsonant one is tacked onto the same regulation. Pairing insult with slander or terrorism with gambling in the same regulation or under the same priority is the equivalent of pork barreling measures used in democratic legislative bodies; all are efforts to mislead others into approving of something they otherwise might not.

The MDA in Singapore has significantly less conservative regulations on internet filtering. According to the OpenNet Initiative, filters are used mainly for pornographic websites, and in fact not all such websites are blocked, rather the most popular ones. This reveals that the MDA generally aims to make a statement about its disapproval of this material, but does not focus extensive technological resources on actually filtering every single website, as is the case with China. An alternative preferred by the SDP and the MDA is a combination of legal and political persuasion, both of which result in the intended objective of self-censorship. To see the influence of the pair, one can review the effect on all media providers, as shown by Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) {Reporters Without Borders}. RSF is a Paris-based NGO promoting world press freedom, which discloses press freedom statistics worldwide in an annual online report. In 2009, Singapore’s press freedom is ranked 133thrd (up by 7) out of 175 countries, and China was ranked 168 (down by 9). The report supports that although Singapore’s filtering system for political, religious, and ethnic content is primarily low-tech, it is effective nonetheless.

Threats of lawsuits, fines, and criminal prosecution are enough incentive for Chinese and Singaporean internet users to censor themselves, but yet another measure is utilized. Licensing is used in both countries, at as many levels as bureaucracy will allow. The government of Singapore requires that ISPs, ICPs and any political or religious groups with websites to register with the MDA .They must obtain a license before operating a website and as licensees; ISPs and ICPs are bound by the MDA’s Internet Code of Practice. As recently as 2005, the Chinese authorities tightened its controlling grip by implementing the Computer Information Network and International Internet Security Protection and Administration Regulations, which require that all website operators register their sites with the local Public Security Bureau within thirty days of operation(Hung 14).

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Chung, Jongpil. "Comparing Online Activities in China and South Kore." Asian Survey 8.5 (2008): 727-51. Ww.ucpressjournals.com. University of California. Web. 20 Oct. 2009. <http://ucpressjournals.com/journal.asp?j=as>.
Gomez, James. "Dumbing Down Democracy: Trends in Internet Regulation, Surveillance and Control in Asia." Pacific Journalism Review 10.2 (2004): 130-50. Auckland University of Technology. Web. 20 Oct. 2009. <http://www.pjreview.info/>.
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"Press Freedom Index 2009." Reporters Sans Frontières. Reporters Sans Frontières. Web. 19 Oct. 2009. <http://www.rsf.org/en-classement1003-2009.html>.
"World Economic Forum - Global Information Technology Report." World Economic Forum - Home. Ed. World Economic Forum. 26 Mar. 2009. Web. 20 Oct. 2009. <http://www.weforum.org/en/initiatives/gcp/Global%20Information%20Technology%20Report/index.htm>.
Yang, Gubon. "The Coevolution of the Internet and Civil Society in China." Asian Survey 43.3 (2003): 405-22. 2 Dec. 2003. Web. 19 Oct. 2009. <http://caliber.ucpress.net/doi/pdf/10.1525/as.2003.43.3.405>.

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