The Net Censors
By George Monbiot
15 September, 2005
"Several of this cursed brood, getting
hold of the branches behind, leaped up into the tree, whence they began
to discharge their excrements on my head"(1). Thus Gulliver describes
his first encounter with the Yahoos. Something similar seems to have
happened to democracy.
In April, Shi Tao,
a journalist working for a Chinese newspaper, was sentenced to 10 years
in prison for "providing state secrets to foreign entities".
He had passed details of a censorship order to the Asia Democracy Forum
and the website Democracy News(2).
The pressure group
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) was mystified by the ease with which
Mr Tao had been caught. He had sent the message through an anonymous
Yahoo! account. But the police had gone straight to his offices and
picked him up. How did they know who he was?
Last week RSF obtained
a translation of the verdict, and there they found the answer. Mr Tao's
account information was "furnished by Yahoo Holdings". Yahoo!,
the document says, gave the government his telephone number and the
address of his office(3).
So much for the
promise that the internet would liberate the oppressed. This theory
was most clearly formulated in 1999, by the New York Times columnist
Thomas Friedman. In his book The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Friedman
argues that two great democratising forces global communications
and global finance would sweep away any regime which was not
open, transparent and democratic.
satellite dishes, the internet and television," he asserts, "we
can now see through, hear through and look through almost every conceivable
no one owns the internet, it is totally decentralised,
no one can turn it off
China's going to have a free press
Oh, China's leaders don't know it yet, but they are being pushed straight
in that direction." The same thing, he claims, is happening all
over the world. In Iran, he saw people ogling Baywatch on illegal satellite
dishes. As a result, he claims, "within a few years, every citizen
of the world will be able to comparison shop between his own
government and the one next door."(4)
He is partly right.
The internet at least has helped to promote revolutions, of varying
degrees of authenticity, in Serbia, Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon,
Argentina and Bolivia. But the flaw in Friedman's theory is that he
forgets the intermediaries. The technology which runs the internet did
not sprout from the ground. It is provided by people with a commercial
interest in its development. Their interest will favour freedom in some
places and control in others. And they can and do turn it off.
In 2002 Yahoo! signed
the Chinese government's pledge of "self-regulation ": it
promised not to allow "pernicious information that may jeopardise
state security" to be posted(5). Last year Google published a statement
admitting that it would not be showing links to material banned by the
authorities on computers stationed in China(6). If Chinese users of
Microsoft's internet service MSN try to send a message containing the
words "democracy", "liberty" or "human rights",
they are warned that "This message includes forbidden language.
Please delete the prohibited expression."(7)
A study earlier
this year by a group of scholars called the OpenNet Initiative revealed
what no one had thought possible: that the Chinese government is succeeding
in censoring the net(8). Its most powerful tool is its control of the
routers the devices through which data is moved from one place
to another. With the right filtering systems, these routers can block
messages containing forbidden words. Human-rights groups allege that
western corporations in particular Cisco Systems have
provided the technology and the expertise(9). Cisco is repeatedly cited
by Thomas Friedman as one of the facilitators of his global revolution.
"We had the
dream that the internet would free the world, that all the dictatorships
would collapse," says Julien Pain of Reporters Without Borders.
"We see it was just a dream."(10)
Friedman was not
the first person to promote these dreams. In 1993 Rupert Murdoch boasted
that satellite television was "an unambiguous threat to totalitarian
regimes everywhere"(11). The Economist had already made the same
claim on its cover: "Dictators beware!" The Chinese went berserk,
and Murdoch, in response, ensured that the threat did not materialise.
In 1994 he dropped
BBC world news from his Star satellite feeds after it broadcast an unflattering
portrait of Mao Zedong. In 1997 he ordered his publishing house HarperCollins
to drop a book by Chris Patten, the former governor of Hong Kong. He
slagged off the Dalai Lama (12) and his son James attacked the dissident
cult Falun Gong(13).
His grovelling paid
off, and in 2002 he was able to start broadcasting into Guangdong. "We
won't do programmes that are offensive in China," Murdoch's spokesman
Wang Yukui admitted. "If you call this self-censorship then of
course we're doing a kind of self-censorship."(14)
I think, if they
were as honest as Mr Wang, everyone who works for Rupert Murdoch, or
for the corporate media anywhere in the world, would recognise these
restraints. To own a national newspaper or a television or radio station,
you need to be a multi-millionaire. What multi-millionaires want is
what everybody wants: a better world for people like themselves. The
job of their journalists is to make it happen. As Piers Morgan, former
editor of the Mirror, confessed, "Ive made it a strict rule
in life to ingratiate myself with billionaires."(15) They will
stay in their jobs for as long as they continue to interpret the interests
of the proprietorial class correctly.
What the owners
don't enforce, the advertisers do. Over the past few months, AdAge.com
reveals, both Morgan Stanley and BP have instructed newspapers and magazines
that they must remove their adverts from any edition containing "objectionable
editorial coverage"(16). Car, airline and tobacco companies have
been doing the same thing(17). Most publications can't afford to lose
these accounts: they lose the offending articles instead. Why are the
papers full of glowing profiles of the advertising boss Martin Sorrell?
Because they're terrified of him.
So instead of democracy,
we get Baywatch. They are not the same thing. Aspirational TV might
stimulate an appetite for more money, or more plastic surgery, and this
in turn might encourage people to look, for better or worse, to the
political systems that deliver them, but it is just as likely to be
counter-democratic. As a result of pressure from both ratings and advertisers,
for example, between 1993 and 2003 environmental programmes were cleared
from the schedules of BBC TV, ITV and Channel 4. Though three or four
documentaries have slipped out since then, the ban has not yet been
wholly lifted. To those of us who have been banging our heads against
this wall, it feels like censorship.
the internet has become, political debate is still dominated by the
mainstream media: a story on the net changes nothing until it finds
its way into the newspapers or onto television. What this means is that
while the better networking Friedman celebrates can assist a democratic
transition, the democracy it leaves us with is filtered and controlled.
Someone else owns the routers.
1. Jonathan Swift,
1726. Gulliver's Travels. Part 4, Chapter 1.
2. Changsa Intermediate
People's Court of Hunan Province, 2005. First trial case no 29. In translation
4. Thomas Friedman,
1999. The Lexus and the Olive Tree. HarperCollins, London.
5. Leading article,
20th June 2005. U.S. firms help China censor fr**dom, d*mocr*cy. USA
6. Google has removed
the statement from its own site, but it can be read at http://pekingduck.org/archives/001843.php
7. 11. Eg Kris Kotarski,
29th June 2005. MSN, China pals in censorship. The Calgary Herald.
8. Open Net. Internet
Filtering in China in 2004-2005: A Country Study. http://www.opennetinitiative.net/studies/china/#28
9. Eg Reporters
Without Borders, 2005. China report. http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=10749
10. Tim Johnson,
24th July 2005. Critics say U.S. companies enable censorship. The Miami
11. Eg James Kynge,
20th December 2001. News Corp clinches TV deal in China. Financial Times.
12. Murdoch called
him "a very political old monk shuffling around in Gucci shoes".
(This sounds to me like a rather better description of Rupert Murdoch).
Eg Gwynne Dyer, 29th September 2001. Canberra Times.
13. Evelyn Iritani,
23rd March 2001. News Corp Heir Woos China With Show of Support. Los
14. Agence France
Presse, 20th December 2001. Murdoch's News Corp looks for further China
access after TV.
15. Quoted in Private
Eye, 17th August 2005.
16. Lisa Sanders
and Jean Halliday, 24th May 2005. BP Institutes 'Ad-Pull' Policy for
Print Publications. Ad Age. Com. Republished at