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With news that China now has 450 million Internet users -- that's more than one-third of the country's 1.3 billion population -- an interesting white paper has come out giving more insight into how the Chinese authorities view the Internet.

In the Western press, the Internet in China is often lauded as simply a means of the disenfranchised masses keeping their leaders in tow, sometimes through the notorious "human flesh searches." But a recent white paper, reported on by "The Wall Street Journal," has the government praising the Internet's role in enhancing public supervision:

“In recent years, with the rapid development and popularity of the Internet,” the paper said, “supervision through the Internet has become a new form of supervision by public opinion that spreads quickly, produces great influence and features a wider range of participation.”

“China highly values the positive role played by the Internet in enhancing supervision,” it said, adding that efforts would be made to ensure that incidents of corruption can be easily recorded through the Internet via a feedback system that offers “a convenient and unimpeded channel for the public to exercise their right of supervision.”

Enabling public participation via the Internet fits into what scholars studying the Chinese Internet have called "networked authoritarianism," where civilians have a much greater sense of freedom -- they can discuss local municipal issues in state-run forums, their opinions are crowdsourced on forming new laws etc. -- but in reality they gain little in terms of actual rights.

The key question is who that "supervision" is directed against. In China, for example, removing officials from power on the premise of fighting corruption is nothing new. But the Internet gives a new sense of legitimacy. The authorities can appropriate genuine grass-roots campaigns against unpopular officials. Or, through state-sponsored forums or more nefarious online mobs, they can help cultivate astro-turf campaigns against troublesome officials. What started perhaps as a bureaucratic campaign against a particular out-of-favor party flunky can end as a people-powered net campaign to root out corruption.

There's a good example in Evgeny Morozov's forthcoming book, "The Net Delusion," where in January 2009, a Chinese man, who had been arrested for illegal logging, died while in police custody. The official explanation was that he died after hitting his head on a door while playing hide and seek. The explanation, however, wasn’t good enough for engaged Chinese netizens, who accused the local police of a cover-up. A popular site attracted more than 70,000 comments on the issue.

But rather than pulling the plug, the Chinese authorities turned the situation to their advantage. They asked concerned netizens to investigate what happened in Cell Number Nine and write a report. By crowdsourcing the investigation, the authorities won brownie points for their supposed commitment to justice and democratization. Smart work.
With hundreds of Belarusians still in jail after protests following a controversial presidential election, a Belarusian blogger has been poring through footage from election night in a bid to identify "provocateurs."

RFE/RL's Belarus Service spoke to Tatiana Yelavaya, an activist who blogs on the Live Journal platform under the name "zmagarka" (warrior). Yelavaya had been posting videos of the demonstrations on her blog when she was sent by an anonymous source what she says are recordings of secret-police radio communications from the night of violence, December 19.

She says the evidence, which can't be verified by RFE/RL, is proof that the attempted storming of the House of Government -- the building housing the parliament, government, and election commission -- was planned by government forces and carried out by provocateurs. Yelavaya and other activists are searching through photo and video footage to identify those individuals who perpetrated the violence and prove that they were colluding with official security forces in this effort. They then plan to submit a dossier to court.

After Iran's postelection crackdown in 2009, Green Movement activists did much the same, when they attempted to identity plainclothes militia members they said were involved in the violence. The benefits of digitization, however, go both ways. The Iranian authorities were quick to launch a website publishing photos of protesters and calling on the public to identify them.

In the future it's likely to get even easier with the introduction of sophisticated facial-recognition software. For instance Face.com offers facial-recognition software that can "scan your photos and search for faces that look like you and your friends in photos, so that we can help you tag, share, and find untagged photos of yourself and friends."

It wouldn't be too hard for states like Belarus to use such software for more sinister purposes, especially with all the homegrown hi-tech expertise they have. Or they could simply buy the technology from abroad.

It doesn't look like foreign companies would have particular qualms selling such technology to Belarus. In a case reminiscent of Nokia supplying the Iranian government with phone-tapping technology, the Swedish telecommunications giant Ericsson has reportedly supplied Belarus with surveillance equipment.

-- Sergei Ablameiko/Luke Allnutt

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