China: Tough Luck, Journalists – the Net Stays Filtered

In the not-exactly-a-surprise category: China announced that, despite the IOC’s reassurances, it would filter the Internet connections available to journalists. What’s unavailable? The usual: sites criticizing China’s atrocious human rights record, or discussing Taiwan, or telling people how to get around China’s censorship. (See ONI’s complete report for the full list of what’s off-limits in the PRC.)

Publicly, the IOC is shocked – shocked! – to find filtering in these Net cafes. (Well, media centers, but the Casablanca joke works better the other way.) Privately, the IOC admits this wasn’t unexpected. When I first heard this headline, I thought of two possibilities. One: the IOC got pwned by the Chinese. Two: the IOC knew this would happen and covered it up until now, in the hope that coverage of the start of the Olympics would drown out any furor. It’s clear that Door Number Two is the winner, as the IOC’s press spokesman admits. This points to a remarkable level of cynicism and realpolitik by the IOC, but then I remembered that this is an organization that selects the host city based on the provision of valuable goods and services to voting members, and felt better that the world works as I expect. (Best quote from the NYT’s George Vecsey, who calls the IOC “spineless and incompetent.” Might be true regarding air pollution, but I think it’s clear that the IOC deliberately lied about the Internet access issue.)

The line out of the IOC is that journalists will have access to materials they need to write their stories – sports-related stuff, nothing irrelevant like China’s human rights violations. After all, the context of the hosting country is irrelevant. If we were to have 1931 all over again, with full hindsight, the IOC would still award the 1936 Games to Berlin, and the government’s treatment of Jews under its Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, would be irrelevant to the real focus: the Games! The wonders of handball! History does tend to repeat itself: as tragedy (for the free exchange of information, for unfortunate photographers who document government incompetence) and as farce (try reading any of the IOC statements with a straight face).

I think this makes the study of Internet censorship even more timely (shameless plug: my early SSRN draft on the topic, and ONI’s Year in Review).

3 Responses to “China: Tough Luck, Journalists – the Net Stays Filtered”

  1. Just a couple of quick updates:

    1. MSNBC’s front page has a video of the “Great Firewall” crumbling. Er, no.

    2. China is reacting to the coverage of its censorship by easing restrictions on some (but definitely not all!) Web sites, according to the NYT: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/02/sports/olympics/02beijing.html?_r=1&ref=asia&oref=login

    3. The IOC is rapidly conducting a salvage campaign on its reputation, claiming that its officials always pushed for unrestricted Web access. Yep. And those Russian athletes who were disqualified for doping are victims of a conspiracy to drive down Russia’s medal count. (Priceless quote from Nikolai Durmanov, former head of antidoping at the IOC: “Until now, international sport, especially the Olympics, has been free from politics.” (1980? 1984? Nikolai, be sure to kiss the tooth fairy for me.)

  2. Even the smallest media outlet should be able to access the full internet via a VPN. That is the standard practice for transnational businesses that operate in China.

  3. Scott, that’s a great point. I think the unhappiness is less about being able to achieve access than about the principle of the thing. And, of course, this is in part just a symbol for the much more challenging realspace impediments journalists face in the PRC.