China quake shows breach in firewall

The massive 7.9-magnitude earthquake that killed thousands in China this week revealed a breach in the communist nation’s outbound flow of online information.

Chinese bystanders were able to send images and videos quickly to the rest of the world in the hours following Monday’s quake, exposing holes in the “great firewall of China,” media and technology experts say.

“They [the Chinese government] have strong controls over information that comes into the country, but they’ve never thought of and, until this moment, they’ve never needed censorship of outbound data,” said Clay Shirky, a faculty member at the interactive telecommunications department at New York University.

In this disaster, the worst quake to hit China in three decades, media-sharing services have been vital in spreading news.

“That’s where a lot of this is happening,” said Amy Gahran, editor of the Poynter Institute’s E-Media Tidbits blog. “Not so much on people’s blogs, but on the media-sharing services like YouTube and Flickr.”

Soon after the quake rocked China’s Sichuan province, survivors posted photos, videos and messages on sites like QQ.com, Tudou.com and Twitter.
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/**/ “Twitter has become kind of the world’s police scanner,” Gahran said. “When something is happening anywhere, it will probably crop up on Twitter first, before anywhere else.”

Twitter is an online forum on which users can post messages of 140 characters or fewer. Using the service, survivors told of collapsed houses, mandatory evacuations and regions where cell phones still were operational. These posts made their way to sites such as GlobalVoicesOnline.org.

“Global Voices Online has bloggers in China who are reading and translating from Chinese forums, blogs and micro-blogging Web sites like Twitter,” said Solana Larsen, the site’s managing editor. “Especially the latter has been very popular for sending up-to-the-minute reports on the destruction from cell phones and via the Internet.”

Click here to see Global Voices Online’s quake posts.
Those on-scene accounts may have influenced the reporting by China’s state media.

“The traditional media, who are much more controlled than the Internet, followed very fast and seem to do a fair job in giving reports,” said Fons Tuinstra, a journalist and blogger in Shanghai.

This flow of information showed that despite strong censorship of Web content entering China, officials didn’t anticipate that data transmission would be a two-way street. They might have foreseen this development after cell-phone images of the military crackdown on peaceful protests by Buddhist monks in Burma reached the outside world via the Internet last September.

“The interesting thing about trying to filter outbound censorship is … unlike inbound censorship, which mainly doesn’t interfere with the economic growth of China, outbound censorship would,” Shirky said. “And strong censorship of material produced by Chinese citizens is a much harder problem for the government to deal with than either managing official media or Western media.”

And that could lead to problems for the government’s official party line, if China’s citizen journalists were to fix their cell-phone cameras on an event that has political ramifications.

“The first time there’s a political earthquake, the same thing will happen and they know that now,” Shirky said. “And I’m sure they’re trying to figure out what attitude they should have towards it.”

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