Cat and mouse, dog and Ouroboros

“Dictators learn faster than internet users.” This is the sad view of the future of the internet. But is this actually true? For many years, China has been the prototype for countries trying to control and censor the internet, but it seems that censorship in China has reached the end of the road. Recently, they seem to have managed to censor the entire internet. The Chinese journalist Isaac Mao gives us his thoughts on this matter.

May 6 2014 Text: Isaac Mao

People always use the cat and mouse model to describe the relationship between censorship and circumvention. In China, there's a similar, yet different version of the “Tom and Jerry” cartoon. It’s called “Grass Mud Horse” vs. “River Crab.” Whenever netizens find some new skills, tools, or services they can use to share information online in a new way, the authorities will chase them down and block them. While there will be always smart netizens who find new ways to get around censorship, there will be censors who soon sniff them out and block them. The censors use the excuse of building a harmonious society, but netizens joke they were “harmonized.” Since censors can always find an advantage because they control the infrastructure of the Great Firewall system, it seems hopeless that the netizen side will win the battle. This is why netizens call censors “river crabs” and depict themselves as “grass mud horses,” which phonetically represents the “de facto mascot of netizens in China fighting for free expression,” as Xiao Qiang said.

After the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, a new episode of this chasing game has begun. More netizens in China became more savvy via the brief window of freedom experienced during the games. Because of this social media boom, many of them realized that they “didn't know what they didn't know” before. Encouraged by the torrent of new information, netizens started exploring more international content and censored news to scrutinize their own country and own history using external information that was absent from local education or media. This triggered the censors, and they became even more zealous than before. Since they were not ready to open their minds, they chose to press down more by pouring tens of billions of dollars into tightening the internet. Instead of just chasing what netizens are using, they took more preemptive actions against the possibilities. China's authorities tightened the valve, using almost all possible advanced techniques for stopping netizens’ online sharing, including keyword filtering, IP blocking, DNS poisoning, packet inspecting, information polluting (using the notorious 50 Cent Party), etc. No wonder Evgeny Morozov screamed out: “Dictators can learn faster than internet users.”

The list of blocked sites and services is too long to be included even partially here. On July, 2008, Facebook was blocked in China without any public debate; YouTube was blocked on March, 2009; Twitter, July 2009; Google Docs, May 2011; Blogspot.com, blocked first in 2007, was released for months in 2008, then blocked again in 2009; Wordpress.com, October 2012; and Wikipedia, the largest encyclopedia in the world, was blocked again and again, etc. Some services may consent to being blocked because there are so many dissident voices and social movements using their functions. But it's not possible to understand why IMDB, the movie database, was blocked (until March 2013), as for most Chinese netizens, the website seemed never to have existed. Well, even if you are so imaginative as to speculate that the linkage to information about some Tibetan movies may annoy Chinese censors, you wouldn’t imagine that a software developers' community, SourceForge, would be blocked in 2012. Another big open-source sharing website, GitHub, met the same manhandling. No explanations, no transparency, everything in darkness. By the end of 2013, seven of the 20 top websites around the world couldn't be accessed freely in China.

Some may argue that the blockages are all to protect China’s local fragile businesses. This is true in a way, since we see many local copycats, from search engines to online e-commerce websites, social media services, instant messaging services, and even some mobile application stores that have taken advantage of the hurdles faced by their international counterparts. It’s nonetheless an illusion. It seems the censors are gaining more power and are full-fledged; however, a new consequence has emerged that goes beyond “cat and mouse.” When internet users began taking advantage of the agility of social med, a visible mouse turned to microbes that might be everywhere. When censors face a constant flood of information, they behave erratically, cracking down here and there. They are not cats anymore—often they become mice by mistake.

Many cases of “the dog chasing its tail” then occur, which means censors may hurt themselves with their tendency to over-block. Like Sina Weibo, the biggest copycat of Twitter in China, which rose up after Twitter was blocked but fell down quickly in just two years. The microblogging service put huge personnel resources into deleting users’ posts and their accounts to satisfy censors, then failed after all. Also, by blocking international social media, China's state-owned media did manage to disguise some truth, but the same time, this prevented them from communicating with international communities, although the Chinese government poured tons of money into trying to improve their image globally. The “dog chasing its tail” collides with the famous “dictator’s dilemma”: the dictator wants to develop some capabilities, but the capabilities themselves are prone to disrupt the dictatorship. Some political scientists argued that economic development would eventually drive the political system toward greater democracy. That’s an ideal case, but in the real world, what happened was bitter.

Censorship at this stage harms all of society, not only by violating the social memory like dementia violates the brain, as described by Yan Lianke, but by also hurting innovation and the economy. Although China held onto its economic boom and was even envied by many foreign countries, it also engaged in very bad practices, consuming a high amount of natural resources but delivering low competency. The price of getting paid instantaneously: compromised food safety, water contamination, and air pollution that often exceed measureable limits. The crazily busy censorship dog never realizes it’s biting its own tail, even swallowing itself like the legendary European symbol, the Ouroboros. It is destroying itself.

At 3 p.m. on January 21, 2014, China’s internet experienced a great blackout. Five hundred million internet users were unable to access any overseas websites, even many domestic websites. Although the official media tried to blame anonymous hackers, researchers found that the blackout was caused by the malfunctioning of the Great Firewall system. The censorship system tried to put a Falungong-related website onto the domain blacklist, but misdirected all traffic to that blocked address, so everyone in China hit the wall for hours. Five-hundred million internet users experienced a blackout. What a “black swan”!

I don’t feel schadenfreude when these kinds of disasters occur. Instead I’m upset. China’s failure could be a butterfly-effect to the whole world this day. We need to be more proactive to prevent this kind of disaster by helping the Chinese internet users to gain access and share freely. Even as the Chinese government dedicates itself to being a top enemy of the internet, it is losing the war step by step. But I wish this would not be a lose-lose ending: upon the construction of censors’ pile of rules, we see destruction of the old ignorance; upon the destruction of the old rules, we see the construction of new social norms, online and offline. The Ouroboros of censorship will eventually swallow its whole body. Whether it dies or disappears, all parts of the body will endure the pain, and a new order shall be born.