Belmont Club

Micropain

Shortly before the last post on the future of the news business model appeared on this site, an article in the Far Eastern Economic Review described a Chinese government backed market-based model for online censorship. The Chinese are apparently looking to outsource censorship. The concept is simple: instead of a fund containing money, Beijing prints a pool of demerits and merits. Earn enough merits and you get rewarded; accumulate enough demerits and you get punished accordingly.

In addition to employing “low-tech” means of repression, such as some of the world’s longest prison terms for “cyberdissidents,” the Chinese authorities have been at the forefront of a growing trend toward “outsourcing” censorship and monitoring tasks to private companies. As scholar Rebecca MacKinnon notes, “the process of web site censorship by which domestically hosted content [in China] is deleted completely or prevented from being published in the first place … is carried out almost entirely by Internet company employees, not by ‘Internet police’ or other government officials.”

Such aims are achieved via a sophisticated system that includes lists of taboo topics issued to private enterprises by government bodies like the Information Office of Beijing. If internet service providers (ISPs) or websites fail to comply with authorities’ orders, they are subjected to fines, have their servers confiscated by police, and can have their businesses licenses revoked by the authorities.

In this pseudo-commercial environment a news company’s success or failure rests on its ability to meet government censorship demands, rather than on the quality of its products or services. In the current economic climate, the vulnerability of private enterprises is likely to grow. As their profit margins shrink, so too does their ability to withstand political pressure.

As long as editorial content and payments flow through newspaper-like sites then Chinese government censorship efforts can be concentrated on pressure points to bring its punishments to bear. How vulnerable will other news models be? As the news models evolve in an industry in crisis, one First Amendment issue that should receive attention is how resistant any a future model will be against state/private coercion. For example, is a model in which the writer receives assignments and is remunerated by the readers themselves as vulnerable? What about other subscription systems? And what is to prevent powerful companies and Western governments (operating under the guise of preventing hate speech) from emulating the censorship model of the Chinese?

As technology changes the architecture of news gathering, analysis, distribution and payment the censorship model is likely to evolve too. It’s always been a race between the censors and the writers. Tomorrow will be no different.