Free, Speech

I was generally okay with Microsoft’s acquisition of GitHub at the time because I was solely impressed with their senior leader. But I was reminded recently of MSN’s history of complying with China’s demands around censorship and control and what I know more than anything is that culture > any one, single leader.

And so GitHub will more than likely comply with China’s demands to censor or even bifurcate their userbase / database. This via Wired:

On the Chinese internet, global social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are banned, and domestic platforms like WeChat and Weibo are strictly monitored. But GitHub, known to some Chinese internet users as the “last land of free speech in China,” remains accessible. Chinese authorities cannot censor individual projects, because GitHub uses the HTTPS protocol, which encrypts all traffic. But they are also unwilling to ban GitHub entirely, because it is invaluable to the Chinese tech industry. The country’s developers are heavily dependent on the open source community; more than 690,000 Chinese users signed up for an account in 2017 alone. China is second only to the US in the number of open source projects on GitHub. Blocking the site would be too costly. An attempt to do so in 2013 was met with widespread outcry; tech industry leaders like Kai-Fu Lee, former head of Google’s China operations, argued that the block would “derail the nation’s programmers” and lead to a “loss in competitiveness and insight.” Days later, the block was lifted.

All this has made GitHub one of the few sanctuaries from censors and a platform for online resistance. GitHub is frequently used to distribute anti-censorship software such as GreatFire. In March 2019, China’s frustrated tech workers created a GitHub repository called 996.ICU to share their grueling work schedules, crowdsource a “blacklist” of companies that have illegally forced employees to work more than 60 hours a week, and drafted petitions to government ministries to demand better working conditions. (The name 996.ICU is based on a joke that the 996 schedule common among Chinese tech workers—9 am to 9 pm, six days a week—will send you to the intensive care unit.) In response, a group of GitHub and Microsoft workers in the US expressed support for the movement, and petitioned Microsoft to ensure the 996.ICU repository remained “uncensored and available to everyone.”

The platform’s unique resilience can be explained through “the Cute Cat Theory of Digital Activism,” says Margaret Roberts, a professor studying Chinese censorship at UC San Diego. The theory, posited by internet thinker Ethan Zuckerman, states that if a website pairs sensitive politics with broadly appealing, popular entertainment—say, lolcat memes—the website will be more challenging to censor, because users want access to the Cute Cat. “But in the case of GitHub,” Roberts says, “the Cute Cat just happens to be the world’s open source code.”

For Chinese authorities, GitHub’s continued presence on the country’s internet poses a familiar dilemma: on one hand, online dissent must be controlled. On the other hand, they are massively invested in the Cute Cat. At the heart of this is the precarious balancing act that the government has been performing over the past two decades: Can it keep the internet just free enough to nurture economic growth but not so free that it opens the door to political instability?But GitHub may soon help the Chinese alleviate that tension. Last December, the company announced plans to open a separate subsidiary in China. According to a report by the Financial Times, GitHub COO Erica Brescia said that the company, in discussions with the Chinese government, was planning a “phased approach” to expansion. A separate GitHub subsidiary could potentially allow the Chinese government to enjoy the economic perks of the open source platform and the ability to censor projects it deems unacceptable. “Users inside of China would be more easily targeted by Chinese political censorship and surveillance,” says Jeffrey Knockel, researcher of Internet censorship and surveillance at Citizen Lab.

Although a spokesperson for GitHub recently stated that they “do not have plans to set up an entity in China, at this time,” Microsoft has made similar decisions in the past. The company already offers censored versions of Bing, LinkedIn, and other products in China. GitHub did not respond to requests to interview the COO or reply to follow-up questions about the December announcement.

Any potential forking of the product—the segregation of users into two platforms, a Chinese version and a US version, based on nationality—would be “another step towards the bifurcation of the internet,” says Adam Segal, the director of the Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. We’ve seen increasing examples of this, from Zoom’s recent decision to stop offering direct services to China-based users, and Bytedance’s clear demarcation of its TikTok and Douyin products.

THE CHALLENGES THAT GitHub faces by engaging with China raises issues that the tech industry has faced since Google pulled out of the country almost a decade ago: Should companies give in to the demands of the Chinese government in order to gain access to a massive slice of the worlds’ online user base?“There are many platforms such as Google, Twitter, or Facebook that have chosen to not comply with Chinese censorship and surveillance requirements at the cost of not having access to that market,” Knockel says. “[But] Microsoft has had a long history of complying with Chinese censorship and surveillance requirements in order to maintain access to the Chinese market.”

These are important things to keep in mind while growing a project and community into the farthest places of the internet (and metaverse). Who you align yourself with through politics or economics will ultimately set the bar to which you can grow.

There’s a reason why independence in business building is crucial from the start and all the way until the very end. I want YEN to be a place and a tool that is seen as a “land of free speech” and ultimate as a fundamental (communication) utility. To do that we must make sure we’re as unencumbered as we possibly can be.

All art must be openly free and available to everyone; that’s how we know that it’s real, authentic, and true art. Free, speech.

Censorship-resistance is more than just a technology — it’s a way of life, a perspective, an appreciation for the ability to say what you want to say whenever you want and with whom, regardless of context. The places online that allow this are getting quickly closed-down or moderated into oblivion.

It’s time to end this nonsense. YEN fixes this:

We need to be able to create, share, and monetize our art, whatever it might be:

I’m just over it:

Time for the future.