It was about 2:00 a.m. when I attempted to log into Facebook from the Shanghai airport. I was returning from leading a crisis communication training program for Chinese hospital executives and wanted to use the down time to check email and my social media sites. But as soon as I tried to access Facebook, my Internet access was cut off. Then it occurred to me. Facebook is blocked in China.
But would they block all online access, I wondered, or am I just being paranoid?
Only a few moments later that paranoia turned real when I was followed on board the plane by an armed Chinese police woman who called out my name and asked for my passport.
This could not be happening. I didn’t do anything wrong, did I? They wouldn’t really detain me for trying to access Facebook, would they?
After several long minutes of repeatedly looking down at the passport and back up at me, she handed it back and left. I thought she must have overreacted so I settled in and forgot about it until a few days later when I tried to log back onto Facebook from home. After numerous tries and hours of technical support, I was told that my PC had been “blocked by a country” — otherwise known as Internet censorship frequently found in countries like China or Pakistan where governments order ISPs to block sites such as Facebook, Twitter and You Tube.
I started thinking about the irony of it all. According to published reports, China has the highest number of Internet users in the world, but is also among the most restrictive with more cyber criminals in jail than anywhere else in the world. The government blocks what they don’t want you to see. They do it on television and online, reminding us here in America how lucky we are to enjoy freedoms of all kind.
Yet, we have our own versions of blocking what we don’t want seen. For example, company administrators who manage page content can take down comments that aren’t favorable and until recently, pharmaceutical brands could ask Facebook to remove unfavorable comments shared with the public. Beginning this month, the social media giant will no longer dispense that privilege.
There are many reasons for content censorship including undesirable content, protecting children from harm or controlling access to information for fear of anti-government sentiment such as that which led to revolts in the Middle East and North Africa earlier this year.
Yet when we log on, we hardly think about the thousands of websites, articles and YouTube videos that are blocked and punished in other countries where violations are taken seriously.
According to the blogger Jaeah Lee, in 23 of 37 countries assessed, a blogger or other Internet user was arrested for content posted online. In Vietnam, authorities sentenced four activists to a total of 33 years in prison for posting human rights violations and pro-democracy views on the Internet. So what should we do when traveling to restrictive Internet environments?
Do your homework. Know what is permitted in different parts of the world. China, Saudi Arabia and Iran, for example, monitor and punish unfavorable content. What you post here may not be acceptable there.
Lost in translation. Individual words do not always translate from one language to another. If you are posting content online, work with a translator to ensure accuracy and context.
Respect cultural differences. Be aware of different communicating styles, phrases, word choices and social values. What is polite in one country may be offensive in another.
When you come home, double check your favorite sites to make sure everything is working. When I finally got Facebook straightened out, I logged onto Twitter but strangely had no access. So I called technical support who told me I had been shut down. Here we go again…