What Balkanizes the Internet: Access Denied or Access Unwanted?

//Harsh Taneja & Angela Xiao Wu discuss their upcoming research project on access blockage and balkanization of the Internet. Their project is past of CGCS’s Internet Policy Observatory (IPO).

Two months after attending a celebration to commemorate the fall of the Berlin Wall, then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced: “A new information curtain is descending across much of the world.”

Clinton’s quote reflects a larger trend in the US policy discourse on the Internet. This dominant discourse equates access blockage with a digital version of the Iron Curtain that curbs the “free flow of information” and creates a vital “partition” on the “global” Internet. Such claims assume that Internet users would use all websites if given access. However, a large body of research on media use shows that people are interested in what unfolds nearby and is in their preferred language. If the latter holds true, one needs to empirically investigate the extent to which access blockage confines Internet users within isolated communities.

CGCS has created the Internet Policy Observatory (IPO) to research the dynamic technological and political contexts in which Internet developments and censorship take place. The IPO will serve as a platform for informing relevant communities of activists, academics, and policy makers, displaying collected data and analysis about ongoing events, such as key decisions and proposals, legal or informal, on Internet policy. Through the IPO, we will be embarking on our project, “What Balkanizes the Internet: Access Denied or Access Unwanted.”  It examines the connection between practice of access blockage and behavior of web users. Generally speaking, state-imposed Internet censorship includes two broad types of measures: content censorship and access blockage. Content censorship is exercised over domestic websites; access blockage, our present focus, targets websites outside the state’s jurisdiction. In the recent years, access blockage has garnered most public attention, invoking the powerful imagery of the “balkanization” of the Internet. To reconsider such imagery, we advocate a theoretically informed, empirical social scientific approach. We endeavor to explain global patterns of web usage by taking account of access blockage alongside other social and cultural factors such as language and geography.

We have already begun this line of work. In our preliminary study, we specifically examined the impact of China’s Great Firewall (GFW) on its citizens’ online behavior. This study surprisingly shows minimal impact of the GFW. Our finding suggests that the Chinese would largely retain their existing web use patterns that are restricted to domestic sites, even if the GFW were to be lifted. Hence we advocate a shift in attention in international policy-making and public discussion from the GFW to the Chinese government’s content censorship of the country’s domestic websites. This study has already been discussed both in popular media such as the Washington Postand academic think tanks such as the Center for Civic Media at MIT.

Our current project is an extension, both in width and in depth, of our preliminary study. As China is an extreme case of access blockage, the present study aims to extend the analysis to South Korea, India and Japan, all markets at different stages of internet penetration and where different levels of access blockage are practiced. Further, we are adding a historical component to the analysis by studying global Internet use patterns in 2008, 2010 and 2012. We are very excited to be working on this project with the Internet Policy Observatory at the Center for Global Communication Studies, University of Pennsylvania and thank them for their support.

We hope that this ongoing project will provide a new perspective and substantial evidence for re-evaluating the dominant, US-led policy discourse on global Internet governance.

Harsh Taneja studies how media audiences take shape in fragmented media environments. He is especially interested in how social and institutional structures impact audience behavior and the consequent impact on media institutions. Before turning to academics he did audience research for media and advertising companies. More about Harsh can be found on http://harsht.wordpress.com.

Angela Xiao Wu is interested in the connections between emerging media and cultural changes. Using mixed methodologies, she seeks to understand, on a micro-level, the formation of subjectivity in relation to media practices, and on a macro-level, the co-evolution of media use patterns and user value orientations with a focus on the infrastructure and materiality of new media technologies. More about Angela’s research: http://angelaxiaowu.com.

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