Chinese censorship and the infoglut

Yesterday, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote about his experiments in testing Chinese censorship of the internet. (See In China It’s ******* vs. Netizens, June 20, 2006, subscription required.) Kristof started two Chinese-language blogs and filled them with politically charged postings. He was surprised that the posts were quickly available online, with only an occasional — and apparently automated, I would think — substitution of asterisks for certain Chinese characters.

Commenting on the quick availability of his blogs, Kristof observes that it’s impossible for China’s 30,000 censors to keep up with 120 million Chinese netizens. This might be correct: the sheer quantity of internet information makes absolute control pretty much impossible. But Kristof further concludes that “the Web is beginning to assume the watchdog role filled by the news media in freer countries.” As Ethan Leib notes at PrawfsBlawg, he’s not as optimistic as Kristof, and I agree. The fact that Kristof’s postings went online mostly unscathed likely says more about the ineffectiveness of filtering programs than about governmental permissiveness. Getting things on the web and keeping them there are not the same.

To his credit, Kristof recognized that his postings might not last long, predicting that “[w]hen State Security reads this, it may finally order my blogs closed.” His prediction was proven correct, and quickly. Though the blogs were online last night, when I checked this afternoon they were gone. One, http://jisidao.blog.sohu.com/, now apparently says that the user does not exist. (Caveat: I don’t read Chinese and used Babelfish to translate.) The other, http://blog.sina.com.cn/u/1238333873, now redirects the user to the main page at http://blog.sina.com.cn/main/. Almost certainly it was humans — and not programs — that removed the sites. Automated and human censorship in China apparently work hand in hand.

Kristof’s observations do contain some seeds of optimism that Chinese censorship can be circumvented by technological and human countermeasures. He writes that young people use proxy software to reach forbidden sites and Skype to make phone calls. He also writes about Chinese blogger Li Xinde, “who travels around China with his laptop, reporting on corruption and human-rights abuses.” Xinde’s sites are closed down constantly, but “the moment a site is censored he replaces it with a new one.” Xinde uses an overseas site, http://www.lixinde.com, to inform readers of the best current internet address.

Nonetheless, I have to wonder how many Chinese citizens engage in these activities or risk imprisonment to blog about politically charged subjects. Even though automated and human censorship might be circumvented by technological and human countermeasures, the will to take such risks must exist as well. As Ethan Leib notes, “it is hard to blog from a Chinese prison.” How does one counteract fear?

Facebook: job-hunting, non-invisibility, and the creepiness factor

Note to job applicants: your potential employers aren’t just looking at Google and Yahoo.

Sunday’s New York Times includes a really interesting article by Alan Finder on how some companies now investigate job applicants on social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Xanga, and Friendster. See For Some, Online Persona Undermines a Résumé.”

The article underscores a simple but important fact: users of social network sites shouldn’t assume that their postings are private. Although names like “MySpace” paint an image of personal spaces, personal doesn’t mean private. It’s not difficult to get into these sites – as the article notes, for some sites such as MySpace, you generally only need to register. For Facebook, to view entries for a particular college, you only need an e-mail address from that college.

That means an awful lot of people can view Facebook entries: alumni with email addresses (which could include potential employers), professors, even campus police. Despite this, at an emotional level, many people assume that their personal websites, blogs, and social network postings are relatively personal spaces that won’t be noticed or invaded by others. These assumptions are wrong in at least two ways.

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Shakespeare & serendipity

Why use a chunk from Shakespeare’s first sonnet as my first posting?

Quick answer #1: Because he wrote so much more beautifully than I ever will.

Quick answer #2: Because I wanted a placeholder.

Not-so-quick answer #3: When working on the blog’s design, I wanted something — anything — to serve as a placeholder. Shakespeare seemed like a good idea: because I’m interested in the technical, policy, and legal problems of preserving information, Shakespeare’s works seemed a textbook example of what should be preserved.

So I found a Shakespeare website and gleefully exercised my right to copy, clip, and paste from the public domain. Sidebar: it would have been even more interesting if I had clipped from a DRM’d CD-ROM of Shakespeare’s works, but that’s another post and another day . . . .

And an admission: Although I was an english & philosophy major in my undergraduate days, it’s been a very, very long time since I thought about Shakespeare. (Notwithstanding Shakespeare in Love, which was great). Having absolutely no idea what might be relevant or useful, I simply looked at the the first thing I found, Shakespeare’s first sonnet.

But serendipity is a funny thing. Considering that I’m currently writing about digital preservation, and further considering that so much of what we electronically preserve is forgettable noise and infoglut — or digital garbage! — I thought Shakespeare’s language was a keeper. Which, of course, it is.