January 14, 2010
China: The First Geographical Walled Garden and What It Means for the Future of the Internet

It's hard to ignore all of the discourse that has occurred online in the past few days regarding Google's un-censorship in China. If you don't know the basics of the situation, take a look at the recent New York Times article (Google, Citing Cyber Attack, Threatens to Exit China) or simply read through the post that started this conversation over at Google's blog (A new approach to China). You can also look at the Twitter trending hashtag #GoogleCN here, which is sure to provide a lot of quick commentary and updated links.

Law professor Jonathan Zittrain explains that Google's website has been censored from access in China in the past, before Google agreed to set up its Google.cn address and filter content. However, as Zittrain also points out, most users attempt to circumvent filtering through anonymity networks and proxy servers.

Not that Google.cn has been used frequently in the past. Search competitor Baidu.com currently owns more than a 60% share of the market, perhaps because the website's search results tap into and reflect local Chinese culture much better than Google's algorithm. Whether or not Baidu finds the most relevant information, though, might not matter, as according to Rebecca MacKinnon's personal experience, Google.cn might actually censor less information.

The pressing issue, therefore, is whether or not Google's potential withdrawal from China will make a profound (or, really, any) impact on the local Chinese Internet culture. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out on Tuesday (12 January), even though a large majority of English-speaking users voted that they wanted Google.cn to remain in China, a majority of Chinese-speaking users wanted the company to leave:

At last look on WSJ.com, the main, English-language Web site, 80%, or 361 votes, said a resounding Yes. However, on Chinese.WSJ.com, the Chinese-language version, asked the same question in Chinese, 72% of a total 934 voters said No. The number of votes, just a couple hours of the announcement, was well above what similar questions have drawn in the past, and was growing.

Conversely, since Google is not just a search provider, but offers its many services to Chinese users, many people are upset about losing access to their data (link in Chinese).

The Blawgdog blog marks out the current websites that are already blocked in China:

  • Facebook.com: blocked.
  • Youtube.com: blocked;
  • Yahoo.com: it's Chinese website yahoo.cn has been acquired by Alibaba, a Chinese company;
  • Windows Live, still can be accessed in China, but some blogs are blocked.
  • Wikipedia: blocked.
  • Blogger.com: blocked several times.
  • Baidu.com
  • MSN.com: still can be accessed from China.
  • Yahoo.jp: still can be accessed from China
  • QQ.com: China's top IM provider and the top news website now.
  • Google.co.in: Google India, it will be blocked because Google's search engine is uniformed.
  • Twitter: blocked.
  • Myspace: blocked sometime;
  • Google.cn: It will die soon if Google keeps its promise.
  • sina.com.cn
  • Google.de: will also be blocked soon.
  • Amazon.com: Some of it's S3 Servers in America is blocked; it's Chinese version still works.
  • Wordpress.com: has been blocked for a long time.
  • Microsoft.com: it is alive.

  • More blocked website not in the top 20 include but not limit to discuss.com.hk (the largest BBS in Hong Kong), www.mingpaonews.com (the most reliable newspaper in Hong Kong), xanga.com, mitbbs.com (the biggest Chinese forum out of China), flickr.com, etc. Yes,  flickr. So one may know why yahoo sold its Chinese site. The fact is: for each new application that can not be controlled by the Chinese gov, if the operator does not restrict itself, it will be blocked. This is surely not an environment that Google can endure.

    Now, that this article points out that "if the operator does not restrict itself, it will be blocked," China is creating a politically-induced walled garden. Just like literal walled gardens, which are service providers that control content on their platform and restrict access to other platforms, the Chinese government is creating a national walled garden by slowly carving off websites that don't agree with the government's political philosophies.

    Of course, I have written before (Practical Geographies: Understanding How Cultural Practices Shape Social Media Usage)about how the Internet really isn't a linguistically-unified structure anyway, and the Google-China split will re-enforce the language divide. But as the Blawgdog also explains, while it would be detrimental to the general idea of the Internet as a unified structure if the Chinese Internet and English Internet split, the fact that non-skilled users will not be able to access any information they wish (skilled users though will continue to bypass restrictions, re: Zittrain above).

    A further division between skilled and amateur users of the Internet would throw Internet culture in China into further chaos, which might affect how citizens deal with and understand human rights, political activism, and communication policies. Thus, Google's split from China marks the first major instance of the direct political influence on digital appropriation. If the Chinese government continues to restrict access to certain websites, digital appropriation will move in two directions, resulting in either a highly-educated, unified user base or a split between current users and the next generation that are mediated by walled garden tactics.

    The Chinese government has already issued a response: "China's Internet is open," said Jiang Yu, a foreign ministry spokeswoman. "China welcomes international Internet enterprises to conduct business in China according to law." While "open" seems to describe if businesses can operate within the digital space, it appears that the government is not willing to bend on the censorship issue. And if Chinese netizens must learn to operate within this policed Internet ecosystem, then we may see a lot of interesting user innovation (with probable violent consequences) in the near future.