Ed Driscoll

Speaking of Orwell And Isms

Via Steve Green, the great Anne Applebaum begins a look at Microsoft, Cisco and the totalitarianism of communist China by invoking the best known book written by the artist formally known as Eric Blair:

In 1949, when George Orwell wrote his dystopian novel “1984,” he gave its hero, Winston, a job at the Ministry of Truth. All day long, Winston clips politically unacceptable facts, stuffs them into little pneumatic tubes, and then pushes the tubes down a chute. Beside him sits a woman in charge of finding and erasing the names of people who have been “vaporized.” And their office, Orwell wrote, “with its fifty workers or thereabouts, was only one sub-section, a single cell, as it were, in the huge complexity of the Records Department.”

It’s odd to read “1984” in 2005, because the politics of Orwell’s vision aren’t outdated. There are still plenty of governments in the world that go to extraordinary lengths to shape what their citizens read, think and say, just like Orwell’s Big Brother. But the technology envisioned in “1984” is so — well, 1980s. Paper? Pneumatic tubes? Workers in cubicles? Nowadays, none of that is necessary: It can all be done electronically, especially if, like the Chinese government, you seek the cooperation of large American companies.

Without question, China’s Internet filtering regime is “the most sophisticated effort of its kind in the world,” in the words of a recent report by Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. The system involves the censorship of Web logs, search engines, chat rooms and e-mail by “thousands of public and private personnel.” It also involves Microsoft Inc., as Chinese bloggers discovered last month. Since early June, Chinese bloggers who post messages containing a forbidden word — “Dalai Lama,” for example, or “democracy” — receive a warning: “This message contains a banned expression, please delete.” It seems Microsoft has altered the Chinese version of its blog tool, MSN Spaces, at the behest of Chinese government. Bill Gates, so eloquent on the subject of African poverty, is less worried about Chinese free speech.

But he isn’t alone: Because Yahoo Inc. is one of several companies that have signed a “public pledge on self-discipline,” a Yahoo search in China doesn’t turn up all of the (politically sensitive) results. Cisco Systems Inc., another U.S. company, has also sold hundreds of millions of dollars of equipment to China, including technology that blocks traffic not only to banned Web sites, but even to particular pages within an otherwise accessible site.

Read the rest–if only because, if you’re reading this, you can.