18 Comments

Summary:

While visiting China to speak at an arts festival last month, I also filed a GigaOM story on HiPiHi, a start-up founded by one of the country’s top Internet entrepreneurs. Thanks to Om’s reputation, the article is easily the highest profile coverage yet for the upcoming […]

WJA on the WallWhile visiting China to speak at an arts festival last month, I also filed a GigaOM story on HiPiHi, a start-up founded by one of the country’s top Internet entrepreneurs. Thanks to Om’s reputation, the article is easily the highest profile coverage yet for the upcoming “Chinese Second Life”, sure to be of great interest to investors and tech executives, most especially in China.

After it ran, however, I noticed one small problem with the piece. It can’t even be accessed in China.

I first noticed this in the business office of a hotel atop the legendary Huangshan Mountains. The story, along with all of GigaOM, was being blocked by The Great Firewall. Not only GigaOM, as it turns out, but apparently every WordPress-driven blog has been banned in China starting in 2005. So if you’re in Shanghai, you can’t read Scobleizer. You can’t even visit I Can Has Cheezburger, for God’s sake. (Im in ur Interwebs, censoring ur LOLcats.)

Since I couldn’t post in China, I had to e-mail the article out of the country as a Word doc so Om and Carolyn could publish it — an extra hit to GigaOM’s resources directly attributable to the Chinese government. But even if I wrote the HiPiHi story on a non-prohibited blog system (I could access TypePad from China just fine) it would have gotten blocked anyhow, because it briefly mentioned the Falun Gong, China’s brutally repressed meditation sect.

I was expecting some level of political censorship when I went there, of course. At times, it’s pathetically obvious and inept. While watching a hotel broadcast of CNN International, for example, the anchorwoman mentioned an upcoming story on a Chinese dissident — and seconds later, the channel went black. The next night, CNN and all other Western channels had been replaced by CCTV (China State TV) programming. Other times, it’s more insidious. While reading Yahoo! News in the lobby of our Beijing hotel, my girlfriend Jennifer noticed that one of Yahoo’s top stories was about AIDS activists in China. But before she could even click on the link, the page auto-refreshed, and after it reloaded, the story was gone.

But the thing is, when interviewing HiPiHi’s execs, I didn’t even pursue the subject of Falun Gong for political reasons. It was first broached by Jen, who was there to take photos, but I was already planning to pose the question as an essential part of my business coverage. Since HiPiHi is competing with Second Life and other upcoming user-created metaverses, the issue of just what opinions its users can express is a basic matter of market distinction. And so now, a couple dozen high-tech/venture funding blogs are discussing the GigaOM article — but none, as far as I can tell, are based in China. Thanks to their own government, which claims to promote the nation’s burgeoning technology sector, the Chinese digerati are simply kept out of that conversation.

Much has been written about how Internet censorship, actively abetted by Yahoo! (YHOO), Google (GOOG), and other top companies in the tech industry, is bad for the Chinese people. Less has been said about how it’s bad for the tech industry itself. As my HiPiHi experience suggests, it prevents investors and executives in the country from getting the full range of information they need to discuss and make good decisions in a transparent and timely matter. (A couple Net-savvy Chinese friends were able to read the article, they told me later — but only after they’d run it through the EFF’s indispensable firewall breaker. And would they have even found it, had they not already known what to look for?) As a consequence, China’s participation in the global high tech economy is crippled and incomplete, and in any partnership with the free world, threatens to hobble us all.

At the same time, this also gives me great optimism that the Great Firewall is ultimately doomed. (Even if the government exploits U.S. accusations of hacking as a “national security” rationale to thicken it even further.) China continues to be rocked by disastrous trade scandals that might have been prevented, had their corporations and investors gotten fuller access to outside reports of internal corruption and mismanagement. For all the heroic efforts of Chinese free speech dissidents (ably reported by Rebecca MacKinnon and others), it may be China’s business people who push forward the final, irresistible demand: To make our country the global power it’s destined to be, the Wall must finally come down.

Photo of author on actual Great Wall by Jennifer Schlegel

You’re subscribed! If you like, you can update your settings

  1. Well… the firewall isn’t stopping them from hacking. See the latest article on slashdot: http://it.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=07/09/03/2319226

  2. It’s been my experience that techno-savvy Chinese and expats know how to reach the verboten websites. Also, by looking out my window here in Shanghai, I think I can say that the Chinese tech industry is doing hunky-dory.

  3. Mike’s ramblings – Asimple answer to the costly Chinese firewall Tuesday, September 4, 2007

    Asimple answer to the costly Chinese firewall

    GigaOM is reporting on the costs of the Chinese firewall for the industry of the country, because the team just noticed how annoying the system can be when one of their co-workers wanted to send a report from inside the country. The problem is well-kno…

  4. I’m still stuck on the web-censorship Clippy-style cops Beijing plans to roll out… putting a smiling face on the repressive regime:
    http://www.itgumbo.com/mumbogumbo/2007/08/china_plans_to_monitor_web_act.php

  5. startupflames.com Tuesday, September 4, 2007

    Not sure why its blocked, probably because of wordpress, not the actual content.

  6. It’s unlikely to be a broad-stroke censorship initiative aimed at the west, but likely a misguided attempt to control internal dissent that has spilled over into the so-called Great Firewall.

  7. Hey Wagner! Nice to see you on another blog :D HiPiHi was rought for me, mostly because of the lack of non-chinese support – and my lack of understanding of the language!

    I quit after the first hour of trying to register.

  8. And not being able to read scobleizer is bad in what way?

  9. The GFW is a pain but it only focuses on certain sensitive terms, and there are plenty of funny intentional misspellings that can get around it :-)

    After reading this i thought i’d try and get the original post behind the GFW so i translated it into Chinese and put it at a place which should be accessible in China. Trackback doesn’t work on that system so I just thought I’d leave you the link……

    http://yeeyan.com/articles/view/1203/1870

  10. INI Signal – » How China’s Great Firewall hurts China’s Tech Industry Friday, September 14, 2007

    [...] James Au writes in GigaOm about how China’s paranoid censorship of the Internet is hurting its own tech [...]

Comments have been disabled for this post