Chinese censorship, values decisions, and free software

Chinese censors are in the news this weekend: Blizzard banned a grandmaster Hearthstone player for supporting Hong Kong in an interview, South Park was added to the “banned” list for their critique of Chinese censorship in Hollywood, and an NBA franchise owner’s job was on the line for a pro-HK tweet. Increasingly, Western companies are finding themselves up against the wall to prioritize western liberal values against access to the enormous Chinese market. We can imagine the difficult, high-pressure decisions for executives in this situation.

As a consumer it feels like we don’t face that kind of pressure, or that kind of decision. Those of us whose choices do not impact thousands of employees' livelihoods, and millions of consumers' information environments, seem to have little leverage. If TikTok quietly hides any videos of Hong Kong unrest, or Delta lists Taiwan as a part of China, or Marriott includes cities in Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau as inside China… we can’t tell the difference. The whole point of censorship is that you remain blissfully unaware of what you’re missing.

When we as consumers think about China’s censorship power in our lives the important question is: How can we tell when it’s happening? It’s not unthinkable for Chrome to invisibly hide certain content, or Facebook, or your iPhone. In fact most of the information services you use likely do this already, in the name of curating content you will “like.” This isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself; it only gets problematic when the filters are invisible.

This is a part of the point of Free and Open Source software. Filters can’t be applied in secret, and by definition you have the right to fork software to do things your way if you like. It’s your right to have your device behave the way you want it to. And black boxes should inspire some suspicion that they may be doing things you don’t like.

At this point it would be easy to descend into the typical open source rant: if only Facebook open sourced its filters! If only Instagram were open! I’ll leave that for others. I want to point out something a little subtler:

The executive’s values decision about western liberalism vs a larger addressable market, is remarkably close to the developer’s values decision about a license that respects user control vs the easier monetization and control of a black box. That decision in turn is related to the consumer’s values decision, about software that respects your rights vs the convenience of a popular black box.

It’s easy to criticize Blizzard’s decision to bow to Chinese sensibilities. But how do you decide, on your own much smaller scale? Do you prioritize values over convenience? Or do you accept the censored experience of a black box as a user? Do you enjoy the control of that black box as a developer?

Hearthstone players are by definition running a black box OS. Users of iOS, Windows, and Android demonstrate comfort with invisible censors in other parts of their devices. Is their presence in video streams and gameplay all that different? Do they have any right to complain? Having given away control to black boxes, perhaps complaining is the way they can impact the way their device runs.

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