Like many people who believe that citizen media is emerging as an important part of the overall media landscape, I’ve got at least two reactions to the rise in government censorship of the Internet. One is, of course, alarm: Ethiopia blocking blogs, Iran blocking YouTube and Wikipedia, Zimbabwe threatening independent journalists who file stories online, Bahrain’s brief block of Google Maps, ongoing blocking of media in China, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and dozens of other states… it’s easy to see the Internet fragmenting into Internets through government crackdown on free voices.
It’s also possible to react to this situation with a bit of hope and pride. If governments are bothering to block citizen media, it’s because they the power and threat of this new media. After all, censorship is the sincerest form of flattery when you’re an anti-government activist.
While I’m encouraged by, and grateful for, the numerous efforts to provide circumvention tools to net users in censored countries, the questions raised by Ann Condi in this essay on Chinese internet use are worth careful consideration. Condi talked with a set of her Chinese colleagues about Proxzee.com, a web-based proxy that lets Chinese users access otherwise-blocked sites. Her colleagues offered responses that ranged from apathy to denial that blocking took place in China to modest interest in accessing blocked content.
Andrew Lih’s response to Condi’s article is at least as useful. While Lih is a staunch supporter of online speech – he’s a prominent Wikipedian, and one of the key sources of information around blockage of Wikipedia in China – he takes to task individuals and NGOs in the west who approach Chinese net filtering with “jingoistic and simplistic” moral righteousness, pointing out that American internet users are hardly flocking to websites that detail the darker corners of our own national history. (Lih recommends a refresher course in American history re: Hawaii, the Northern Mariana Islands and Iran…)
The reminder for me in this discussion is that providing access to information is seldom enough to ensure that people access that information. This is true in all nations, both those where governments censor online content and ones where access is open. It’s possible to learn about an astounding range of topics through online information… but only if you’re inclined to research those topics and ask those questions. While Internet users in China may lack access to some topics, Internet users in the US often lack interest in topics, a barrier that’s just as difficult to permeate in ensuring that topics enter the popular consciousness.