25 November 2008

The People’s Security Bureau in Shenzhen has told blogger Zuola couldn’t leave the country to attend the Deutsche Welle Blog Competition (where he would be a judge) because he’s a “may threaten state security” (“可能危害国家安全”). Then his twitter page got blocked by the Net Nanny, along with fellow activist bloggers Amoiist and Wenyunchao. The rest of Twitter remained accessible, and precision Twitter blocks haven’t been seen before*. You can read more about Zuola’s background and what his refused entry might mean over at Rebecca MacKinnon’s blog, which is also blocked, and has been for a while. Or rather, all subdomains of “blogs.com”, which hosts Rebecca’s blog, were blocked for quite a while. Now it’s just her. The same used to be true of all “typepad.com” subdomains. Now it’s just Letters From China that’s blocked, and McClathy newspapers Beijing correspondent Tim Johnson is unscathed. Blogspot was blocked on and off for ages, and is currently available - but not the GFW blog. Even Livejournal is fully available now. I don’t know if anyone is being blocked there, because frankly, it was blocked for so long I don’t think anyone in China still posts there except this guy, who has written about Zuola and the GFW, but perhaps the censors also assumed no one uses Livejournal.

So now at Twitter, Blogspot, Typepad and Blogs.com, blanket blocks have been replaced with precision blocks on blogs with “politically sensitive” content (all the examples above). If the blanket blocks are really going away for good, this is a good thing for three reasons:

1) The government is giving up on carpet blocking whole net neighborhoods, which is pretty heavy handed.

2) It opens up outside blogging platforms that don’t have an in-house censor shop to Chinese users.

3) It may sound weird, but it’s actually a good thing that it targets specific people, because we know who they are. In order to work, censorship has to keep alot of things vague and fuzzy, like what specifically can’t be said, what will happen if you say it, and who is saying it. When whole blog platforms were blocked, it was hard to know why. People often speculated that one blog said something that wasn’t looked favorably upon, and so the whole domain got harmonized. Now we don’t have to guess.

It’s not clear whether the precision blocks are based on keywords or the domain in some cases, but it seems likely that the latest Twitter blocks are not keyword based, simply because alot of people are retweeting Zuola and they aren’t getting blocked. Likewise Letters From China got a personal block a while ago, and there’s good reason to expect Rebecca got one of those.

Now I’d like to mention one of those little mysteries of the Net Nanny that I’d like to solve. For a while now I’ve noticed that quite a very random looking assortment of comic book and scifi related blogs are blocked. They all have their own domains and none seem to have ever had anything to say about China whatsoever. Do the censors have a problem with steampunk, speculative fiction and graphic artists? Or is still more bad aim?

*use “https” and you’ll get through. The goes for mutantpalm.org as well. You’ll just have to accept my unvalidated security certificate, because I’m not going to pay for one.

Flickr Image Courtesy of Shizhao.

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