Information Wants to Be Free, Unless it Doesn’t

To Wikipedia woo-hoo-ers the collaborative Internet encyclopedia embodies the wisdom of crowds and the power of peer production. Acculturated as I have become today to the possibility of my personal biases, I’ll confess that I dissed Jimmy Wales’ baby in Wiki-Wacky, a post about the Wikipedia-founder’s boast that his open-source project is superior to Encyclopedia Britannica. With that on the table, consider the contrasts between Wikipedia’s English-language and Chinese-language treatments of Mao Zedong, as reported last Friday in The New York Times. The English-language account states that Mao was “a mass murderer . . . accountable for the deaths of tens of millions of innocent Chinese.” The Chinese-language account credit Mao’s pivotal role in the creation of modern China without mentioning the human cost of the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and other less-than-saintly aspects of his long rule. According to The Times, “the Chinese version diverges so significantly from its English counterpart that it sometimes reads as if it were approved by the censors themselves.” These significant differences arise from the “powerful influence of Chinese education, which often provides a neatly sanitized national perspective on turbulent events” in China’s past, and by China’s powerful state-imposed censorship on news media and access-restrictions on non-Chinese web sites.

China’s experience challenges old-Internet cyber-utopianism. The Chinese government continues to mate two strange bedfellows: effective network control of information it deems unsuitable and sufficient network freedom for powerful economic growth. In the words of Jack Goldsmith & Tim Wu’s Who Controls the Internet, “the Chinese Internet is becoming less and less like its Western counterparts – it is pulling away from the rest of the world.” (1) One might argue that information subversive to Chinese control will eventually filter through the Internet’s permeable membrane but, as Goldsmith and Wu also point out, China reinforces its political and network control with ever-stronger market control. Companies that do business in China must dance to China’s tune for, as Elvis said, 1.3 billion Chinese wallets can’t be wrong. Wikipedia’s competing versions of English and Chinese crowd-wisdom reflect that governmental control can trump open-source informational democracy.

Howard W. French, Who did What in China’s Past? Look It Up, or Maybe Not, The New York Times, 1-Dec-06; Jack Goldsmith & Tim Wu, Who Controls the Internet Illusions of a Borderless World, Oxford University Press, 2006 p. 89

2 thoughts on “Information Wants to Be Free, Unless it Doesn’t”

  1. I think the contrasts between Wikipedia’s English-language and Chinese-language treatments of Mao Zedong is a great example of how the same person, place, words, event, etc can be twisted and translated into utter opposites. I personally think it has a LOT to do with the education. I’m sure the Chinese textbooks will have a far different outlook on the Opium War. Also, differences in religion and beliefs can also play a role.
    As for economy, the contrast in culture is one of the obstacles that businesses have to overcome when looking into international relations. Censorship will hurt a lot of internet-based companies like Microsoft, AOL, Yahoo, and Skype. Microsoft had to censor the content of its blog service MSN Spaces, to comply with the mainland Chinese laws. But I think many companies are willing to put restrictions on their products, just to maintain any media share of the Chinese market. I guess sometimes quantity is better than quality.

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