Sunday, February 12, 2006

Five reasons why Chinese authorities won't be able to regulate the 'Net

I've been thinking about Chinese authorities' attempts to regulate the Internet and other networked communications (a few descriptions are linked from Rebecca MacKinnon's blog here, and here). In my opinion, the new regulations won't work, for the following five reasons:

1) Chinese communications needs: Chinese people today have an expectation of open, multipoint communication that didn't exist before, when there were two main forms of communications: Traditional mass communications (i.e., the Chinese press, rallies, etc.) which spoke with one voice (most of the time); and person-to-person communications, usually within one's neighborhood or region. Nowadays, Chinese people have many more options, thanks to the Internet, mobile communications devices, and an active press. People can easily talk with or message someone on the other side of the country, instantaneously. If a conduit is shut off -- for instance, a forum, website, newspaper, or mobile phone network is shut down -- users can switch to another.

2) The nature of interpersonal communications in China: Sometimes Chinese can be very direct when talking about a certain subject or expressing criticism. Sometimes they can be very indirect. How can authorities effectively regulate subtle discussion of a sensitive subject, or indirect criticism of the government or official policy? Keyword filters won't work, and even human review of content won't catch some of the more subtle messages.

3) The basic nature of the Internet: The Internet is global computer network designed to facilitate communications. Exploiting the positive aspects of this medium while restricting other types of content is probably impossible. Look at the global attempts to eliminate spam and child pornography. Governments have passed laws, nonprofits have put their best minds and technologies to work, corporations and users have spent billions, but spam and child porn still plague the Internet.

4) The evolving nature of the Internet & technology in China: Five years ago, blogs and SMS were not widely used in China. Now they are. The government is attempting to catch up with regulation of these communications channels, but there are too many to monitor, and new channels and technologies keep popping up every year. There will surely be new networked communications technologies five years from now, and the government will still be trying to catch up.

5) Limitations of the Chinese bureaucracy: What makes Chinese authorities -- who haven't been able to stamp out corruption or piracy -- think they can do any better regulating the Internet and other networked communications? They can't handle the job now with more than 100 million Internet users, and an unknown number of mobile telephone subscribers. How will they cope when there are 250 hundred million Internet users, and half the population in China has access to mobile phone service?

Am I missing anything here?

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