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Building Censorship Walls - A Question For Journalists
Tuesday, June 08 2010 @ 10:46 AM EDT

China has issued a paper defending its censorship of the Internet. John Oates of The Register describes its eerie language:
The paper claims: "Chinese citizens fully enjoy freedom of speech on the Internet. The Constitution of the People's Republic of China confers on Chinese citizens the right to free speech. With their right to freedom of speech on the Internet protected by the law, they can voice their opinions in various ways on the Internet....

But the limits to this freedom would cover almost everything. The paper warns: "Citizens are not allowed to infringe upon state, social and collective interests or the legitimate freedom and rights of other citizens. No organization or individual may utilize telecommunication networks to engage in activities that jeopardize state security, the public interest or the legitimate rights and interests of other people."

And that's not all. There are separate laws against disseminating vulgar or pornographic material, anything that may subvert state power, undermine national unity, infringe upon national honour, advocating heresy and spreading information that infringes upon the legitimate rights and interests of others. Gambling, propagating heretical or superstitious ideas, spreading rumours and disrupting social order are also banned

Here, of course, in the US the government couldn't do that. There are, evidently, Constitutions and then there are Constitutions. But I have a question. Given the censorship of content for applications for the iPad and now Microsoft's phone, what are the implications for journalists?

Let me show you what Microsoft won't allow. Microsoft has outlined the rules for its new Windows Marketplace for Windows Phone 7 in a 28-page PDF document, and Mobile Burn made a list:
Content that's not allowed includes anything with sex/nudity, anything that generally falls under the category of pornography, or apps that depict or suggest prostitution. Illegal activities, such as games and apps that promote illegal gambling or drugs, are also not allowed. Microsoft is also putting its foot down on violent games. Applications with "realistic or gratuitous violence," will also be rejected.
What is the difference to the *public* between this and censorship in China? The end result is much the same. (Well, they are unlikely to plunk you into a restorative camp for overindulgence in gaming on the Internet.) There is a difference to *journalists*, in that it's done by private companies, and they can't put you in jail for mentioning the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 or whatever is the verboten topic du jour. I don't minimize that difference. But my question regarding journalism remains.

Many journalism entities are creating applications for either Microsoft's phone or Apple's iPad or iPhone. Here's Wired's new app for the iPad, which apparently flew off the shelf immediately. And in fact some imagine the iPad will save them by artificially creating scarcity and forcing payments.

Some still don't grok the Internet. The New York Times just forced Apple to remove a news reader app, Pulse. On what grounds?

The Pulse News Reader app, makes commercial use of the and RSS feeds, in violation of their Terms of Use*. Thus, the use of our content is unlicensed. The app also frames the and websites in violation of their respective Terms of Use.
Unlicensed RSS feeds. Are they kidding? Nope. They claim copyright infringement. Nobody has heard of fair use at the New York Times? Are they actually suggesting that the RSS feed, which they totally control as to how much they publish from the article in the feed, can't be read unless you get it from them directly? Do they understand what an RSS feed is? What it's for?

I understand the issue, from the standpoint of Apple or Microsoft, actually, and they are private companies. And I realize that news outlets are dreaming big dreams about paywalls. Even the New York Times is going to try it, and of course the essence of that is wall building, to keep non-paying visitors out. Not that the plan will work, in my view, since news has never paid for itself.

But news is not a game. It's foundational to a democratic government's ability to function as intended. I see a German magazine association is calling Apple out regarding censorship, but I have yet to see any US news entities protest. Should any journalist or any news entity create applications for Windows or Apple when doing so requires accepting censorship by private companies that in the US the Constitution would bar the government from implementing? If you say yes, they should, then should they do two different versions of articles, one for the apps store for the millions of people who use only such apps to read their articles and one on the Internet uncensored for the rest of the world? How long do you think that would last, two different articles? And what about the future? Will there always be paper versions of the New York Times? Will journalists self-censor so as not to have to write two different versions?

I'm sure these are the right questions. And the time to answer them is right now, because avoiding compromise is always better than fixing it after the fact.

Update: A poignant anecdote about China from James Fallows in The Atlantic.

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