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Firewalls to Freedom

NEW YORK – Even the most cold-hearted realists would agree that the failure of Communist censorship played a role in the collapse of the Iron Curtain: Voice of America, the fax machine, rock ‘n’ roll, and the lure of Western capitalism helped to win over the people of the Soviet Bloc.

Today, similar hopes are often vested in the Internet, with high expectations that the wealth of online information might trigger the same kind of censorship failure in contemporary authoritarian states that we saw in Eastern Europe – and with the same results.

Such expectations are not entirely unfounded, because most Internet censorship systems are not perfect. But, while anybody with a little know-how can figure out how to circumvent, say, the “Great Firewall of China,” Internet filtering is only one layer of Chinese Internet censorship. It is also supplemented by an increasingly sophisticated system of manipulation and spin.

While the blocking of foreign Web sites was eased during the Olympics, deletion of politically sensitive content from Chinese blogs and chat rooms continued unabated throughout 2008. Now, a new crackdown against “vulgar” Internet content is being used to clean up politically sensitive writings – including discussion of Charter 08 , a pro-democracy treatise signed by thousands of Chinese who discovered it online. Contrary to Western expectations, most of this domestic Internet censorship is carried out not by the government's Internet police, but by Chinese Web hosting companies, which are being held legally responsible for what their users publish.

Indeed, the Chinese Internet is evolving and adapting in ways that shore up the regime’s legitimacy. Hundreds of thousands of people are employed as freelance Web commentators, working to spin discussions in chat rooms and on blogs in a more patriotic, pro-government direction. Nationalistic young people, proud of China’s newfound global economic and political power, gladly volunteer their time to show off their patriotism on the Internet.

Meanwhile, China is looking to Russia, which may have invented an entirely new model of controlling the Internet without recourse to censorship. Having established full control of traditional media, the Kremlin is now moving full-speed into the virtual world. The authorities’ strategy is not new: establish tight control over the leading publishing platforms and fill them with propaganda and spin to shape online public opinion.

The fate of LiveJournal – the most influential blogging platform in Russia, which is often used to express dissent and protest against the government – is one unfortunate example. In less than three years, this popular online resource has been transformed from a respectable American start-up to a shady Moscow-based enterprise, co-owned by the Kremlin’s favorite oligarchs.

Government propaganda abounds, too, generated by new media operators like Konstantin Rykov, a 29-year-old Duma deputy and the founder of New Media Stars, the Kremlin’s favorite Internet firm.

Whenever manipulation efforts fail, cyber-attacks offer yet another powerful tool to crack down on dissent without triggering public accusations of formal censorship. This is what happened to a Georgian (known by the screen name cyxymu) who used his blog on LiveJournal to criticize how both governments handled last summer’s war. A series of cyber-attacks followed, and was so devastating that the entire service – with its millions of other blogs – crashed, forcing LiveJournal administrators to delete his account temporarily.

As contemporary authoritarian regimes learn how to manage and engineer information flows, we must understand that promoting and protecting free speech in places like China and Russia is not a simple matter of “tearing down the wall.” Given these governments’ complex strategies for regulating what their citizens do online – ranging from establishing effective control of private media and telecoms businesses to allowing people to blow off steam without going too far – we should be more realistic about the true extent of the Internet’s transformational potential.