2007-10-19T00:51-0800 Peking Ducked Out For a Bit
Sorry about the extended pause: I just spent a week in Beijing. About the only thing wrong with Beijing is that everyone abbreviates it to "BJ". Oh, that and the repressive and autocratic regime: which, incidentally, I am more optimistic about. (Understand that I could scarcely have been more pessimistic about it, given my formative civil liberties event was waking up to the Tianenmen Square massacre.)
Bear in mind of course that I am randomly extrapolating from barely a week of interaction, but There was a lot less respect than I was expecting. Lots of teasing and undermining of authority, from giggling waitresses teasing their stern boss, to extended, loudly gesticulated debates between hotel managers and bellhops, between out-of-town cabbies and bemused police officers. It felt more like New York than a cowering, centrally-planned potemkin Olympic village it's sometimes painted.
Even experiencing the Great Firewall filled me with my perverse sense of hope. (At work, my self-given title is "World's Most Conflict-Averse Activist", but I am a also a fair runner-up for "Digital Rights' Biggest Gap-Toothed Optimist". At a Canadian privacy conference last month, a TV crew filmed me specifically because I was the only pro-privacy speaker who didn't seem actively suicidal).
The Great Firewall, in brief, is appalling. Appalling enough for it to be one day abandoned, I hope. It damages the entire experience of the Internet -- not just for obvious political searches, but for everyday business, too. DNS queries fall over regularly, connections drop for random but broadly discoverable reasons, searches are arbitrarily banned. A resident and I spent a few minutes whittling down the use-case for a new and frustrating Google block. It turned out the PRC was blocking any Google search with the Chinese pinyin syllable "zhēng" in it. That's like someone blocking any search term that contains the English word "trip". My colleague had discovered it because they were searching for a Chinese company that included that syllable - Zhēngtu Networks, local creators of the second most popular MMORPG in China. Google has been down in the last few days; so has YouTube. This isn't just breaking Google's service; it's breaking the whole functionality and usefulness of the Net.
The Firewall divides China into a local domain with okay connectivity and rampant self-censorship, and the "foreigner" domain with crummy degraded performance and arbitrary blocking. As a policy, I don't think that can work. You can build a walled garden as big as half a continent, and you're still going to painfully suffer competitive disadvantage to your trading partners. If the US had declared itself a Net isolate from the rest of the world, the Net would have died on the vine. As everyone who has every tried to pick out what they thought everyone would need from the Internet has learnt, it's not about having "enough", it's about having all of it. You don't know which part of the Net you need, because everyone else is finding different parts that they need -- and you need them.
I think far more sinister is the developing technology that silently drops parts of the Internet with little observable effect on even quite close neighbours. For instance, British Telecom's Cleanfeed, which can block individual URLs within a domain, and leave the rest untouched. A manifestly broken Internet will provoke all kinds of debate, offline and on. A silently censored Net may encroach until the lack of debate becomes perfectly natural.
No narrative dreams in China, just lots of mental processing of my attempts to learn and understand Chinese ideograms. Like semantic tetris, you close your eyes, and the radicals leap up out of the visual noise.
Here's the Chinese for Internet, or "cyber":网际 (wǎng jì). It's the image for "net", appended to the ideogram for "edge/boundary/between".
I like its X X eyes, as though the sign for Internet has its own embedded emoticon.