3/6/08

networks will network: censorship, net culture, cuba


i was intriguied by an article in the nytimes entitled cyber-rebels in cuba defy state limits. it seems cubans have begun to thwart state cyber censorship which includes hefty limits to internet access, not by creating fancy software go abouts like activists in china, but rather through innovative, often offline, connections.

i know the nytimes' archive isn't always accesible so i will quote the article at length. the artilce begins:

A growing underground network of young people armed with computer memory sticks, digital cameras and clandestine Internet hookups has been mounting some challenges to the Cuban government in recent months, spreading news that the official state media try to suppress.


and elaborates on particular events:

Last month, students at a prestigious computer science university videotaped an ugly confrontation they had with Ricardo Alarcón, the president of the National Assembly.

Mr. Alarcón seemed flummoxed when students grilled him on why they could not travel abroad, stay at hotels, earn better wages or use search engines like Google. The video spread like wildfire through Havana, passed from person to person, and seriously damaged Mr. Alarcón’s reputation in some circles.

something similar happened in late January when officials tried to impose a tax on the tips and wages of employees of foreign companies. workers erupted in jeers and shouts when told about the new tax, a moment caught on a cellphone camera and passed along by memory sticks.

“it passes from flash drive to flash drive,” said ariel, 33, a computer programmer,


i am reminded of the streisand effect where when an attempt to censor information on the internet backfires and causes the proliferation of that information. so if the recording industry tries to take down a song that song is then spread and posted in considerably more places. i read somewhere that in effect the internet treats censorship like a bug and attempts to route around it.

however the cuban example illustrates that such go arounds are not implicit to the internet but part of network culture in itself. censorship doesn't just galvanize people to repost or mirror items around the net but to create new links and paths of exchange both online and offline, by any means possible. state controls are becoming obsolete as they galvanize new networked, more resiliant, social formations. in cuba, this becomes manifest in the underground movement of passing flash drives around by hand. however china seems to be a bit more experienced (and has greater infrastructure), so instead of just outright censoring or limiting access it creates official paths that allow a vast amount of information to flow and has sophisticated filters on that information. it discurages looking for censored information by making it a little harder (and not worth the average user's time) to access. cuba simply limits access, yet information will still find its way even without broadband. i think the important lesson is that network culture is not simply derrivative of the internet but is its own social formation with its own intertia that could change the world even if all our computers were turned off.

for more information on how the chinese firewall works and how people get around it you should check out this wonderful and comprehensive article from the atlantic.


image via howl @ the moon