Home People LibTech: Rebecca MacKinnon on Networked Authoritarianism

Disclaimer: I have done my best to transcribe the comments of these speakers at the conference on Liberation Technology in Authoritarian Regimes, and I apologize for any errors.

China specialist Rebecca MacKinnon begins with the coverage of Liu Xiaobo’s receipt of the Nobel prize. When she tried to post this piece of news on three local Chinese sites, including Baidu and Sina, she was blocked from posting with a moderation message. “You can wait to be moderated,” she notes, “as you can wait for Godot.” In other words, it won’t get published. On the micro-blogging site Sohu the name Liu Xiaobo is removed from the post when it is published. This is what faces Chinese authors when they try to publish on political topics.

This censorship is being outsourced to the private sector, it is not being done by the government. They are reinforcing the networked authoritarian state. The stick is that businesses that do not censor effectively lose their licenses. In addition to financial success, a carrot is the “self-discipline awards” for successful self-policing sites, which are put on annually by the government.

She notes that Lokman Tsui’s paper on “Iron Curtain 2.0” does a good job explaining that this is a new form of authoritarianism. It’s not a wall, it’s a hydro-electric dam. Like a torrent of water, China both needs and fears information, and does not fully block it but controls it. Scholar Min Jiang has also developed a good typology of online civic spaces in China: government propaganda, commercial government-controlled spaces, emergent NGO spaces (which are often the victim of cyber attack, international diaspora spaces that are free by often inaccessible.

Networked (or deliberative) authoritarianism allows China to increase its legitimacy. For example, a challenge to the one-child policy was allow to stay up on a government platform, where the idea was debated. Scholar Yongnian Zheng makes a distinction between “voice” activism, which critiques inefficiencies or local corrupotion and thus strengthens the regimes by allowing it to root out ineffectiveness, “exit” activism that challenge the authoritarian system itself find no space and results in imprisonment and web site shut-down.

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