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Censoring Social Media Ignores The Power of Speech

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My five-hour journey between Beijing and Shanghai passed without any difficulty - in fact people were staring at me due to the complexion of my face rather than the fact that I was reading articles from the Guardian and TSJ websites. Indeed, while Iran may censor many media outlets, China seems to be a somewhat more relaxed in this regard.

But China's censorship is by no means pale (they still censor articles specifically relating to China!); Facebook and Twitter are prohibited and any websites run by Google are either sluggish or will plainly not load. And these are only a few examples of the Chinese online blackout.

Attempting to find a proxy server is also nigh impossible for a foreign 'alien', with nearly all websites linked from Google's search result as simply 'not available'. Try entering the same search term too many times and soon you'll encounter the feeling of an overarching figure watching over your laptop, your naïve search result eventually 'not available'. Clearly a lot of thought has been put into the Chinese censorship system.

Now Prime Minister David Cameron has decided that he wants part of the action. It is due time for Britain to consider 'whether it would be right to stop people communicating' using Blackberry Messenger, Facebook and Twitter, he remarked - and China have supported his suggestion. His explanation is that these types of social media must be blocked in order to prevent future events, such as the horrendous riots that rapidly spread across the UK. Perhaps countries like Iran and Zimbabwe were right in giving advice to Cameron (that he should be wary of using extreme force on rioters) while he was off creating international incidents on holiday (for not tipping a waitress, no less).

Yet Britain and Syria and China - and all other countries attempting to quell this flow of communication - fail to recognise that there is a major flaw in their system: there are always ways of getting around this type of censorship. If technological means do not work, we always have the trusty power of speech. After all, the rioters in 1981 seemed to coordinate themselves without today's fancy methods.

It was in one of Beijing's most famous landmarks, the Forbidden City, that I found myself in the surreal situation of bypassing any censorship law possible. Having met another foreigner, we engaged in a deep discussion about the censorship embedded within the country. Any English-speaking Chinese person would have been able to hear anything we were saying, much to the frustration of the Chinese government.

Similarly, my experience in Shanghai shows how speech truly is king when it comes to censorship. For as far back as I can remember, China's political situation has been seen as a somewhat mysterious land, a little unknown to the westerner - and even somewhat to the regular Chinese citizen. Indeed, when asked about politics in China, three journalism students giggled, replying, 'we don't talk about that...'

Chinese students in particular are worried about talking about politics. One student describes discussing the subject as 'dangerous'. She told me about a case at the Shanghai International Studies University, where she is enrolled. One student, who criticised the government's policies, was called into the office of the general secretary at the university (always a government official). Despite receiving an excellent set of examination results he was withheld from receiving his degree. I acquired all this knowledge within a five-minute conversation, not Facebook, not Twitter and certainly not Blackberry Messenger.

This is all forgetting the liberal reasons for not censoring social media, y'know, little things like freedom of information. If we seriously think about going down this path, the United States might even consider releasing their magnificent 'internet in a suitcase' to UK residents, an effort which aims to create independent networks in countries that limit freedom on the internet. If our government does decide to censor social media sites and people suddenly stop talking to each other, we can always rely on proxy servers and suitcase-based internet to get us back onto Twitter. After all, how else would the population organise the #riotcleanup?