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"Protest! I Said, Protest!"

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, March 25 2011

So, that New York Times lede that had a Beijing entrepreneur getting his cell phone turned off by authorities when he quoted Hamlet -- "the lady doth protest too much" -- might not hold up. The blog Shanghai Scrap tested it out, as did other Chinese, and had no trouble. A twist to watch is that a Times reporter on the story retweeted a call for a correction on the anecdote.

Now, it's worth mentioning that self-selecting ad hoc testing isn't necessarily conclusive. It doesn't make much sense to assume that the only way a Chinese government would track its people is to surveil all of the many million citizens with cell phones.

But that said, these digital censorship anecdotes are so often so very, well, anecdotal. And little sourced. I should have been a bit more incredulous when I relayed the claim. For what it's worth, I did put the question to a State Department official yesterday: how does State really know when foreign governments are behaving badly on the digital front? The response was that developing reliable human sensors on the ground, including through embassy staff, is a focus of what they're doing and funding under the umbrella of "Internet freedom."