Text-Messaging as State Repression

In the latest twist on Internet repression, governments don’t just censor, they scare. Last week, for example, the Chinese government broadcast a text message to cell-phone users in Lhasa, Tibet, where Beijing has cracked down on protests in recent weeks. The message demanded that users “obey the law” and “follow the rules,” and no protester could have mistaken the meaning, or the messenger. If the government also managed to terrify even quiet, apolitical citizens, Chinese and Tibetan—well, so be it. Repression 2.0 is not a precise technology.

That’s from this Newsweek article, published over a year ago. Here’s another interesting passage:

According to Ethan Zuckerman, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, some nations like Zimbabwe even deploy security agents—or people who act like them—to wander the aisles at cafés, glancing at screens. At the same time, digital records of which sites patrons visit are squirreled away for eternity in official databases. Today, Chinese café patrons would be taking a big risk searching “Tibet and crackdown,” and they know it.

New media and communication technologies be used for good or bad ends by ordinary citizens, as I noted earlier. But they can also be used for good or bad ends by states. These technologies may not have have a net democratizing effect in authoritarian political systems.

The China Digital Times is another resource on new media in China. (Thanks to Bruce Dickson for this reference.)

2 Responses to Text-Messaging as State Repression

  1. Patrick O'Neil June 19, 2009 at 1:34 pm #

    This is in fact happening in Iran–SMS is down with the exception of threatening text messages coming from the state. There was an article on/in NPR about the “cat and mouse” game between the state and opposition which, to my mind, conflated filtering and access. Internet speeds are deliberately slow in Iran and have been made even slower by the state to prevent things like video upload. The idea that the regime can’t possibly afford to shut off the internet #which is often cited in the case of China# overlooks the fact that the internet matters largely for commerce, and economic sanctions means that Iran has no access to electronic commerce. So for the regime, there’s no economic price to be paid for slow or even no internet. Internet dependencies are a function of globalization #see: North Korea, Burma#.

    Incidentally, if anyone is wondering, my observations are based on two trips to Iran over the past 18 months.

    Professor Patrick O’Neil
    University of Puget Sound

  2. Greg Sanders June 19, 2009 at 5:01 pm #

    That wasn’t even the first time China used that trick. Back in 2005 there were some mass messages sent when the government started working to ratchet down the anti-Japanese protests.