Jul 18 2010

Girls lean back everywhere: American censorship and the snail’s pace of social change

I recently finished reading Girls lean back everywhere: The Law of Obscenity and the assault on genius, which is a history of American literary and artistic censorship by a lawyer who argued some of the seminal cases before the supreme court, Edward de Grazia. It’s hard to imagine today how delicately sex had to be treated in early 20th century American writing, lest the author and publisher land before a court. This book documents the long legal shift to the freedom that authors enjoy today, where every Borders has a well-stocked “erotica” section. And it really was a long shift — the protagonists in this story fought over decades, one incremental advance at a time, and knew they were doing so. That is, for me, the biggest lesson.

In 1921 James Joyce’s Ulysses was banned in the US, and its publisher criminally prosecuted, for writing that now seems tame. There aren’t even any dirty words in the passage that caused the most uproar; it’s just a girl leaning back to watch the fireworks, leaning back to show more and more of her stockings and garters and underthings to a man she fancies, and it’s poetic as hell.

A few decades later Allen Ginsburg’s Howl landed the poet before a judge. Books by D. H. Lawrence, William Burroughs, and — my personal favorite — Henry Miller were also banned as obscene at one point or another. All of these works are free today, but it took decades of legal battles.

At first, there were many subjects that simply could not be talked about at all. One of the very first novels to deal frankly with lesbianism, Radclyffe Hall’s 1928 The Well of Loneliness, contained no sex at all other than the sentence “and that night, they were not divided” but was ruled obscene because it depicted “inverts” in a positive light. But even heterosexual sex was illegal to depict, if the writing was sufficiently explicit.

All of this gradually changed. By the mid 50s, American judges had ruled that discussion of sex in itself was not obscene. In 1964, de Grazia defended Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and the Supreme Court ruled that any work “not totally without social value” could not be held obscene. This decision effectively freed the written word entirely, and in subsequent decades, plays and photographs and films would be freed to.

But it took 80 years.

And that’s what struck me most: deep social change takes a long time. The book is a legal history, so it is full of the arcana of American obscenity legislation and long-forgotten legal tactics. But these excruciating details show that the players took a deliberately long view in many cases. Their game was played out over decades. Also, the conflict wasn’t anything so simple as authors versus cops; this is not an underdogs vs. establishment story. Judges played a pivotal role in the freeing of artistic speech, particularly supreme court Justice Brennan who patiently transformed the law, piece by piece as the appropriate cases arose, over almost 20 years. The opposing villains, if they can be called that, included conservative politicians, state prosecutors, and citizen pressure groups.

I think of this now as I ask the question: how do societies change?

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May 30 2010

Internet as information democracy, or new media news monopolies?

There was a dream that the internet would mean the end of the media gatekeeper; that anyone could get their message out without having to get the attention and approval of the media powers that be. This turns out to be not quite the case.

I took data from the Project form Excellence in Journalism’s State of the News Media 2010 report to create this chart showing the market share of the top 20 news web sites. In theory, the internet busts media monopolies by allowing anyone to publish for free. And there’s no doubt it’s been disruptive. But according to data from Nielsen, the top 7% of 4600 news and information sites get 80% of traffic (from American viewers.) We see a big concentration of power, as the rapid falloff in the chart above shows, and much of it still belongs to “old media.”

Organizations such as CNN, Fox, the New York Times and USA Today rank in the top 20. But so do new media giants AOL, Google News, The Huffington Post and Yahoo.com, which is the biggest news site of all.

(It’s also interesting to note that many of the top 20 new media news sites produce little or none of their own news; in the extreme case Google News produces no stories at all of its own. While some see aggregation as parasitic, I think it’s obvious that it delivers a tremendously valuable service to readers.)

For better or worse, the ability to publish anything nearly for free hasn’t meant the end of big media monopolies. It’s simply shifted the landscape and the power balance.

The limiting factor to getting your message out is no longer having access to an expensive printing press or a TV station. It’s attention: how many minutes of time can you get from how many people? In this game, brand still matters hugely. There are only so many URLs a person can remember, only so many sites they can check in a day.

You have an audience, or you don’t. Mindshare is now the barrier to entry in the media world. Perhaps it always was, though I daresay it was easier to get viewers to check out your new television network when there were only 13 channels. Online, the number of channels is infinite for all intents and purposes; a single person will never exhaust them all.

Which is not to say that the internet has changed nothing. We have seen over and over that bottom-up effects can propel something to mass attention, with no big company behind them. This is often called “going viral,” but that’s not quite a broad enough description of the effect. In many cases, what happens is that something becomes just popular enough to get picked up by mainstream media, who then propel it into the spotlight.

And what this PEJ top 20 list doesn’t take into account is that people now get online news from lots and lots of sources other than news websites.

Facebook is now the most widely used news reading program. It’s also now the #1 site on the internet. Should it top this chart of news sources? Meanwhile, Twitter has become a primary news source for very many people. And then there are mobile news apps, some of which belong to old media news organizations and some of which don’t. The richness of news distribution systems today is well captured in another PEJ report on the “participatory news consumer.”

So has the internet made it easier to get non-mainstream messages out? I think the answer can only be yes. But don’t expect that anyone will be reading your alternative narratives just because you’ve put them online. Your best bet to to be heard still lies with a small number of very large companies. And although the internet per se is relatively uncensored in many countries, commercial gatekeepers like Apple and Facebook own important dedicated channels, and both of them engage in censorship (1, 2).

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Feb 08 2010

In Xinjiang, the Internet is Guilty Until Proven Innocent


We are witnessing the birth of a new kind of internet censorship in the Xinjiang province of Western China: the kind where a web site must be specifically allowed, instead of specifically disallowed.

China’s largest province was disconnected from the world completely, including a shutdown of phones and SMS, after hundreds of people were killed in separatist protests by the Uyghur minority people in July. Today, the Far West Blog reports that 27 more web sites have been allowed through the previously complete internet block. Wow. A whole 27. That brings the total number of extra-provincial sites accessible to Xinjiang residents to 31, and all of them are inside China.

The Chinese government maintains that the US-based “World Uyghur Congress” instigated the riots from overseas using the internet and SMS. No communications, no riots, the logic goes. And perhaps this is true, if myopic (fascinating debate on this here).

But there is something very wrong about opening up sites one by one like this, despite the fact that state-run Xinhua news agency is playing it up as communications being “restored”. The current Xinjian policy represents a new and extremely troubling flavor of censorship: rather than some sites being blocked, some sites are allowed. This is a white list, as opposed to the usual black list; the default is now “no”. Bearing in mind that personal satellite dishes are illegal in China, this means the government has complete control over the information that people are exposed to. This is just like the pre-internet era in any number of times and places, really, but that doesn’t make it any better.

At least text messaging, including international text messaging, was restored two weeks ago.

According to Far West Blog, here is what you now get from the outside world if you live in Xinjiang:

  • 7 News Sites (including China Daily and CCTV)
  • 4 Travel Sites (including Ctrip and Air China)
  • 3 Business & Finance Sites
  • 3 Telecom Sites (all three major Chinese carriers)
  • 2 Shopping Sites (including Taobao, China’s version of eBay)
  • 2 Computer Service Sites (so you can update your anti-virus)
  • 2 Gaming Sites (more flash games…yippee)
  • 2 Education Sites (study materials for students and help for teachers)
  • 1 Fashion Site

Yes, this also means no IM, no Skype, no email, no nothing outside of the province. “I have had to sit here and endure a frustrating feeling that we are now living in the stone ages,” says Far West Blog writer Josh.

These 31 sites seem ridiculously limited, and these limits (no email!) would severely hamper business in the affluent Eastern provinces. Xinjiang has only 20 million people, so perhaps China can more or less do without it for a while. But what if the national firewall let through only, say, the top 10,000 or 100,000 currently uncensored international sites? How much easier it would be to prevent some pesky overseas message board from cropping up to corrupt Chinese minds! Why, your world-censoring work would practically be done for you, and almost no one would be the wiser.

Let’s hope that this isn’t a precedent.

UPDATE: There are rumours, based on government statements in December, that a national whitelist is planned. Nothing definitive yet.

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Dec 18 2009

What Internet Censorship Looks Like in Qatar, Bahrain

I am collecting “censored!” screens from different countries. Thanks to the sleuthing of Jacob Appelbaum, I’ve got two more for you. When you’re not allowed to see something online in Qatar, you get redirected to this site:


(Click for larger.) As opposed to most of the other “blocked site” screens, you don’t actually have to be in country to see this, just go to http://www.censor.qa/.

Next up, Bahrain:


Lest the Westerners in the audience get the impression that blocking internet access is all about silly little theocracies in the desert, note that Australia just passed an internet censorship law. The blacklist is secret. Stay tuned for “What Internet Censorship Looks Like in Australia”!

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Sep 12 2009

Hong Kong is Not Quite China


The “Pillar of Shame” is faces: faces in agony, anonymous faces, dead faces. It stands in the plaza of the Student Union of the University of Hong Kong as a monument to the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre in which hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators were killed by the Chinese government. It was installed by students on the tenth anniversary of this sorry event, and the police did not stop them.

This would never fly on the mainland. In China, web searches, blog posts, foreign news broadcasts, and even instant messages about the Tiananamen Square massacre are very closely censored. To erect a monument to something that officially did not happen is unthinkable, not to mention severely punishable.

But Hong Kong is different.

The island was a British colony by treaty with the Chinese for 100 years. The 1997 handover to the Chinese government was peaceful, and Hong Kong became the “Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.” This means that it is under different law. In effect, the Hong Kong Basic Law — drafted jointly by the British and Chinese in the late 1980s — is a completely different constitution for the region. Hong Kong and China even require different entry visas and have different immigration procedures. In particular, mainland Chinese residents are not allowed to live here permanently.

And they might want to! Hong Kong residents enjoy freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and guarantees against unwarranted search or detention. The chief executive is not democratically elected, but the legislative council is. The internet is not censored and the economy is officially capitalist.

This arrangement provides a strange vantage point for China observers; it’s China, but also not-China. It’s free, and you can do things here you could never get away with on the mainland. For example, Rebecca MacKinnon of the University of Hong Kong has published some wonderful research on the Chinese internet censorship regime.

The Basic Law is guaranteed by the PRC for 50 years, until 2047. What happens then is anyone’s guess.

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May 05 2009

What China is Censoring This Week

Tags: ,


[Update May 6 17:00: added information on the context within China's overall internet censorship.]

The thing about censorship is that, when done well, no one really knows what’s being censored. This is why last week’s leaked documents from Baidu, the largest Chinese-langauge search engine and blogging site, are so titillating. Maybe someone screwed up bad, or maybe someone on the inside had an attack of transparency; whatever the reason, we now have a huge pile of documents detailing Baidu’s censorship policy during the period from November 2008 to March 2009. 


The documents, now safely ensconed in a permanent home on Wikileaks, reveal for the first time a detailed inventory of the Chinese government’s priorities for, er, harmonization. There is a blacklist of 798 specific URLs, most of which seem to be recent news articles and discussion forum posts on sites both inside and outside of China. Far more interesting is a long list of sensitive keywords. Included policy documents suggest that the appearance of any of these terms in a blog post triggers a manual review by the staff of Baidu’s censorship team — whose names are listed in another of the leaked documents! While some of these topics have long been outright censored, such as “Tiananmen Square,” others are more general categories to be watched. Taken together, these sensitive terms are a fascinating portrait of China’s institutional paranoia.

Some categories are obvious, such as “Taiwan” and “naked chat”. Other areas are shockingly broad, such as “power” and “tyranny.”  Certain media outlets such as Voice of America are considered unacceptable, and “SMS the answer” is forbidden within the “exam information” section. Also, China does not have any ketamine, AIDS, or ethnic conflict, and frowns upon one night stands. The main document of interest begins,


中办发 国办发 温州 鬼村 段桂清 四川广安 广安事件
中组部前部长直言 动物园 集会 涿州 饲养基地 中石油国家电网倒数 张文中 华闻 王政
假冒 记签 校园改造工程 雍战胜 死刑现场 冯巩 陶虹 高勤荣

And I can’t read that either, so below is an automated translation, via The Dark Visitor who clearly used something more formidable than Google Translate. Still, machine translation really doesn’t work as well as one might like, or perhaps “electric chicken” makes perfect sense in context.

Continue Reading »

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Jan 24 2009

Chinese Dissidents’ Manifesto Celebrated in the West, Ignored in China


Liu Xiaobo is now imprisoned at an uknown location for his involvement in the Charter ’08 document

On December 10, 2008, a group of 300 Chinese dissidents published an open letter (english translation) to the Chinese government  calling for wide political freedoms and basic human rights in their country. Although this document has become the vegetarian dinner party topic du jour among Western activists, it’s not at all clear whether it will have any impact in China. For one thing, the Chinese government has censored it, removing it from Baidu and Google and even individual blogs. The internet being the internet, people are reading and talking about it anyway, but this only matters if the Chinese populace in general is sympathetic to the notion of government reform and greater personal rights. They may not be.

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Jan 11 2009

What Internet Censorship Looks Like, Part 2

The Turkish Government censors internet access from within the country, as I discovered yesterday when attempting to access YouTube from the Turkish town of Selçuk, as this screenshot shows (click to enlarge):


The English text on this page reads: “Access to this web site is banned by ‘TELEKOMÜNİKASYON İLETİŞİM BAŞKANLIĞI’ according to the order of: Ankara 1. Sulh Ceza Mahkemesi, 05.05.2008 of 2008/402″

Just to complete the irony, I was looking for a video of the Oscar Grant shooting when I first discovered this “blocked site” page.

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Jan 01 2009

The Censored Story of Wikileaks

Wikileaks founders presenting at the 25th CCC

Wikileaks is often in the news, but for the wrong reasons. The web site provides a highly public outlet for “classified, censored, or otherwise restricted material of political, diplomatic, or ethical significance.” It is designed to be a journalistic tool for whistle-blowers and citizens of oppressive government and corporate regimes, a place of first and last resort for sensitive information from sources who need protection. It is a great irony, then, that an organization which specializes in censored information only makes the news when somebody violently objects.

I first stumbled upon Wikileaks about a year ago and have been watching it closely ever since. Despite its mission of openness, the site has a certain mystery about it: nowhere on the site are the principals publicly named. I was delighted, then, to attend a talk by two of the Wikileaks founders at the 25th Annual Chaos Communication Congress in Berlin. The 50-minute presentation was titled Wikileaks vs. The World, or “a talk about some conclusions observing Wikileaks.”

You may have heard about some of the things we’ve done in the media, but what you hear about tends to be what is frequently of greatest salacious interest to the Western media and to people in general. That doesn’t tend to be our everyday work.

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Jun 10 2008

What Does Internet Censorship Look Like?

In the United Arab Emirates (UAE) it looks like this:

This is the web page that users trying within the United Arab Emirates see when they navigate to flickr.com

I captured this from an internet cafe in Dubai in November, 2007, when I tried to navigate to flickr.com. Click for a larger image; the text reads, in Arabic and English, “We apologize [sic] the site you are attempting to visit has been blocked due to its content being inconsistent with the religious, cultural, political and moral values of the United Arab Emirates.” I must say it was something of a shock. If you live in what is commonly known as “Western Civilization”, you’ve probably never run into a censored page before. As with all personal experience, if you don’t see it yourself it’s very easy to forget that it exists at all.

But internet censorship does exist. It’s very real. In fact, something like one third of the governments of the world censor their citizens’ internet access. Given that this includes India and (especially) China, it may be that half the people people in the world can’t actually see what Americans, Canadians, Europeans and so on experience as “the internet.” Continue Reading »

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