China To Bloggers: Stop Talking Now. K Thanks Bye.

(image) Yesterday I finished reading Larry Lessig’s updated 1999 classic, Code v2. I’m five years late to the game, as the book was updated in 2006 by Lessig and a group of fans and readers (I tried to read the original in 1999, but I found myself unable to finish it. Something to do with my hair being on fire for four years running…). In any event, no sooner had I read the final page yesterday when this story breaks:

Sina, Tencent Shut Down Commenting on Microblogs (WSJ)

In an odd coincidence, late last night I happened to share a glass of wine with a correspondent for the Economist who is soon to be reporting from Shanghai. Of course this story came up, and an interesting discussion ensued about the balance one must strike to cover business in a country like China. Essentially, it’s the same balance any Internet company must strike as it attempts to do business there: Try to enable conversation, while at the same time regulating that conversation to comply with the wishes of a mercurial regime.

Those of us who “grew up” in Internet version 1.0 have a core belief in the free and open exchange of ideas, one unencumbered by regulation. We also tend to think that the Internet will find a way to “route around” bad law – and that what happens in places like China or Iran will never happen here.

But as Lessig points out quite forcefully in Code v2, the Internet is, in fact, one of the most “regulable” technologies ever invented, and it’s folly to believe that only regimes like China will be drawn toward leveraging the control it allows. In addition, it need not be governments that create these regulations, it could well be the platforms and services we’ve come to depend on instead. And while those services and platforms might never be as aggressive as China or Iran, they are already laying down the foundation for a slow erosion of values many of us take for granted. If we don’t pay attention, we may find ourselves waking up one morning and asking…Well, How Did I Get Here?

More on all of this soon, as I’m in the midst of an interview (via email) with Lessig on these subjects. Once I’ll post the dialog here once we’re done.


3 thoughts on “China To Bloggers: Stop Talking Now. K Thanks Bye.”

  1. So, if anyone in the “West” needed reminding, China is still very, very much a totalitarian state.  While it tolerates — and indeed depends upon — elements of free market capitalism to enable it to create sufficient economic opportunity for its vast population, it does so while balanced by the often brutal fist of intimidation, coercion and torture.  China’s ruling leadership walks the edge of a razor blade — embrace free market reforms, but at considerable peril, as the population increasingly wants “more”.  This episode demonstrates, however that the State will immediately and without hesitation move to crush anything that threatens its control.  Yet, at the same time, the Bo episode points to the patent depravity in practice among many of the ruling Communist Party’s highest elite.  Simply read allegations discussed in the NYT and WSJ about Bo’s brand of “rule”.  Somehow, it does not seem possible for China to continue to paint the portrait of a growing yet tranquil domestic political and economic paradise.  It seems certain that more and more of these episodes are likely as the realities of slowing economic growth collide with a broken form of 20th Century totalitarian government. 

  2. The example of China suggests that the internet is indeed fundamentally controllable. But the experience of the Western content industries suggests the opposite: hackers invent technical workarounds which are then democratized to the masses. The workarounds and the democratization always have a political flavor. So perhaps it’s about expectatations. The internet can only be controlled if its citizens have that expectation.

  3. Interesting subject, i’ll be looking forward to your next post. My opinion is that Internet can be controlled, only when people can be controlled, and in China this is the case.

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