Twofish's Blog

August 5, 2006

Dealing with the China wikipedia block

Filed under: china, wikipedia — twofish @ 7:04 am

The big danger in dealing with the Chinese firewall is that it will change the culture of wikimedia in ways that will ultimately be self-destructive.  Suppose someone had a list of ways of circumventing the firewall.  The “wiki-way” would be to post those methods, and then let everyone see them.  The problem then is the PRC government would see them, and then may be they would block them, maybe they wouldn’t.  However, if you don’t post them, and let news of the anti-block techniques spread by word of mouth, one creates a closed circle of power, based on person connections, which is will have negative cultural consequences.

The point I’m making is that there are some dangers in discussing these issues publicly.  But there are also some dangers in not discussing these issues publicly.  As long as we keep both sides in mind, I think rational decisions can be made, but if we look at one without looking at the other, then things get unbalanced.

Also, these issues go way beyond the PRC.  People in the PRC are afraid to talk about the government.  People not in the PRC are afraid to talk about their employers.  Some people might be annoyed that I’m seem to be making a moral equivalence here.  I’m actually not, since if your point of view is that PRC censorship is “bad” because it is political, whereas not talking about you boss is “OK” because it isn’t political, OK, fine.

The trouble is that the PRC is trying (and to a large extent succeeding) in getting people in the PRC to view political censorship as “OK” just in the same way people are “used” to not talking about their employers in public.  One you get people to accept censorship as “normal” then you don’t need to put too many people in jail.

And regardless of the abstract moral principles, the “bad feeling” that one gets when I’m afraid of telling my boss what I really think, is the same “bad feeling” as one gets when one’s post online is deleted by a censor in the PRC.

Some other ideas……..

* The important wikitext for Chinese language is a howto text on practical Chinese law.  What is the land tenure system like.  What will get you in trouble with the law?  What *won’t* you get in trouble with the law?

* The grand strategy should be to draw in the Chinese government to the wiki-way and not to fight them.  It would be bad if some Yahoo-like censor deleted posts from a special point of view, but it would be *wonderful* if some government censor was about to participate in Wikipedia “as a normal user.”  The irony is that having a “secret agent” from the Ministry of State Security hanging around wikipedia and quietly participating in the encyclopedia building process is sort of the thing that I think we ought to encourage.

* One priority for the Wikimedia Foundation should probably be to establish some sort of contact with someone in the Chinese government so that one can discuss this issues.  There are a number of ways of making contact…..  Surely there is a Chinese wikipedian somewhere that knows someone that knows someone.  Also the big Western companies that are doing content work.  Who do they talk to?  One other thing that I probably should do is to make some business cards with wikipedia on them, and the next time I end up at a thinktank meeting, just pass them around.

* The issues in how wikipedia deals with the Chinese government are *not* unique to the Chinese government.  They are to a large extent the same issues that wikipedia has with any large bureaucratic organization.  One bit of “semi-secret” information that I have is that its interesting to talk to a Chinese government official since they are surprisingly open-minded about things.

The other bit of information that is useful about dealing with the Chinese bureaucracy is that on the one hand, is that if you want to get anything done, on the one hand, its important to not embarrass the government and make it clear that you know “who is in charge.”  On the other hand, once you establish “they are in charge” then its also important to speak freely and honestly about how you see the world, and of any problems you see.  The one thing that I’ve noticed about Chinese government officials is that you can almost never figure out what they really think (just like corporate middle managers are good at hiding their real thoughts), and sometimes you say something that happens to be exactly what they secretly believe.

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