I’m assuming most of us had already heard about Internet censorship in China before the lecture this week, and I’m sure that when you first heard about it years ago, you were slightly shocked. Living in Australia, it is difficult to grasp the idea of having restricted access to the Internet. Imagine searching online for a past political or historical event, and being unable to find anything because the government doesn’t want people knowing or talking about it. Imagine if you posted a meme or rude comment online, about your own personal opinion on Tony Abbott, and being taken to jail because of it. It seems very extreme, but this happens on a daily basis in places like China, due to their tight Internet censorship laws.
The Internet censorship in China is known as the Great Firewall of China, or the Golden Shield Project. It’s a censorship and surveillance project run by the Chinese government that began in 2003. As discussed in the lecture this week, the censorship aims to neutralize critical online opinion, prevent people from being corrupted by ‘evil’ cultures, and stop attacks on state leaders. By doing so, the Chinese government is affecting the freedom of speech of Chinese citizens – moderating what information goes online and what people talk about. Defying these Internet rules could mean severe punishment for those involved.
Digital technologies, online sites, and social networking pages are generally seen to add to the freedom of speech that we engage in, in an online space where people from all over the world can openly discuss their thoughts on any topic they like. However, in certain places around the world, digital technologies and online sites can be taken control of. Governments can instead use these sites and platforms for oppression of thoughts and opinions, through carefully monitoring online activity, and completely banning certain pages and sites that the government might believe to defy their censorship laws, such as Google.
However, in China, some people are trying to find ways to get past the strict censorship rules on the content allowed. As mentioned in the readings and lecture this week, microblogging has become increasingly popular in China. People often use microblogging as a way to try to overcome censorship, through the use of a secret language that only others in the microblogging community will understand. Through using emoticons, symbols, or replacing words that would otherwise be flagged by moderators and deemed inappropriate for the internet, such as names of political figures, or comments on political affairs, the citizens engaging with microblogging could replace those words with a simple or common word that wouldn’t be picked up by the censorship laws. This ‘visual language’ acts as a way to avoid censorship and to empower people and their freedom of speech from the government.
While this is seen as an effective and subtle way to try and avoid the censorship laws in China at the moment, what if the 600 million Internet users in China all caught on to using the same substitutes for certain words? This could become an issue, as with a small amount of the population using visual language substitutes can go unnoticed, if all Chinese ‘netizens’ engaged and followed the same visual language structure, the government may catch on to the avoidance and steps the public is taking to evade the censorship laws. If this happened, it could lead to even tighter Internet laws, and restrict the freedom of speech of Chinese citizens even more than it already does.
When talking about the Internet in China, it is important to talk about this visual language being used. As mentioned, people are using visual substitutes as a way to avoid censorship laws. Visual language, including images and videos, are harder to moderate than simple textual communication. It is much easier for moderators to put a search up for specific key words, than physically trawl through hundreds and thousands of photos to see if they contain unlawful content. A friend of mine is studying in China this semester, and while he informed us he wouldn’t have access to social media over there, he discovered Instagram is available in China. It’s interesting to think how this image based social media platform is allowed when images often hold more meaning than text alone, and could be interpreted in many different ways, yet the government has not banned it. I believe that there may be more worldwide image based content platforms that are available in China because it is harder to censor general images compared to text. Unless the images are ‘tagged’ with keywords, the government could miss something completely controversial, in their eyes, due to the difficulty of moderating the thousands of images that are posted on these platforms each day. Is this why many platforms that are text based are adding the affordances of images and videos, not only to improve visual communication between online communities and people, but as another form of self expression that allows the Chinese netizens to gain more freedom over their online experiences?
For us, the Internet censorship in China is extreme, but their strict rules in culture and society are commonplace for their citizens. With the Internet becoming a place where people around the world speak freely about their thoughts and opinions, the Great Firewall of China is preventing this by placing firm laws on Internet practices and the content that is allowed to be posted online. However, through the use of visual language, many people are finding subtle ways around the moderators and engaging in conversation that would otherwise be banned. Looking at the blocking of social networking sites, such as Facebook, it is interesting to see Instagram, an image-sharing platform, still available for use. Images are more difficult to moderate than text, so could visual communication be the way forward for Chinese citizens, to allow them to defy the censorship that governs their online use, and give them the freedom of speech they are denied?