Thursday, November 04, 2010

Speech: A Chill in the Air

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The free speech temperature in Taiwan plummeted this week with two events. First came the Hu's Girls episode, summarized by David on Formosa on his Posterous Blog:
Jason Hu is the current Mayor of Taichung and KMT candidate for Mayor of Greater Taichung in the forthcoming election. As part of his campaign his team produced a video featuring "Hu's girls" with twin sisters singing and dancing to promote Taichung. Then netizen "Kuso Cat" (廖小貓) produced a KUSO* version of the video. The KUSO version spliced in news reports about Taichung's sex industry. The twins then complained about the video. Links to both videos are below.
David then links to this excellent article by Danny Bloom on the Hu's Girls mess, which was completed in fine Taiwan style with the girls giving a tearful press conference about how they had been abused. In Taiwanese media conferences, tears are an important and often artful signal of victimhood. Poor dears. Maddog rips into the reporting and the original video:
I don't completely agree with the Taipei Times' characterization that the video "portrayed the young women as working as hostesses at a nightclub in Taichung." An important bit of context that's missing from the related coverage is this this October 29, 2010 news story about police alerting the girls at a Taichung night club of an impending raid. The video of the girls sneaking around fits perfectly. In both the original video and the parody, Jason Hu calls these girls "Everybody's girls!" Although the vehicle for the parody is the video and the girls seen within, its real target is the public figure they're promoting: Jason Hu.
The girls' loud protestations of victimhood serve to divert attention from maddog's final point: the real target is Jason Hu, not the girls. As maddog notes: "When businesses like the Golden Jaguar (金錢豹) are still flourishing -- despite promises by Hu that he would clean Taichung up -- doesn't this kind of parody practically write itself?"

As this attempt to chill KUSO's excellent parody was going down, our friends at that center of enlightenment, the Ministry of Education, in fine martial law-era style, sent around the missive above to NT regarding its popular PPT bulletin board site. The Taipei Times has the call:

The one-page notice was sent last month to National Taiwan University, which oversees the PTT site frequented by hundreds of thousands of users daily.

Citing complaints received by Premier Wu Den-yih’s (吳敦義) office, the notice said political articles dominate the PTT’s Gossip Board and that it wished to see political staffers who try to “manipulate” Netizens’ opinions on the board removed from “an educational network” to give users a cleaner environment.

Gossip Board administrators should step up their management of Internet use and comments that “are not used for educational or research purposes,” the notice said.

The notice was posted on the Internet by one of the administrators of the forum, who claimed it was forwarded to her through school officials. Within hours hundreds of angry messages had been posted online on Internet forums and social networking Web sites.

Most of the comments voiced concerns about what they said was an attempt to assume control of, and regulate parts of the PTT, which include more than 1.5 million registered members and tens of thousands of discussion boards.

It is almost impossible to overestimate how important BBS systems are in the online lives of Taiwanese students; they are probably far more popular than blogs or the PHP-based discussion forums so popular overseas. The Ministry has struck at something every Taiwan student uses. The Taipei Times editorialized:

Shame on the ministry for issuing such a notice, which it described as a “mere friendly reminder,” because it instantly begs the question from any rights-conscious Internet users as to what authority the ministry thinks it has to restrict students from exercising their right to free speech online.

Accusing those taking part in the Gossip Board and chatting about politics of being subversive moles planted by political parties is ridiculous.

Many academics and adults have often lamented that young people nowadays are indifferent to what is happening around them, that they lack ideals and indulge their selfish desires in online gaming. So shouldn’t the ministry take it as an encouraging sign that there are college students who do pay attention to the serious matters happening around them and care enough to spend time discussing those issues online on the so-called Gossip Board?

The logic behind the ministry’s decision to send the notice is perplexing. Does it wish for the nation’s youth to not have their own opinions on serious subjects such as politics, wanting them only to comment on gossip like who actress Barbie Hsu (徐熙媛, better known as Big S) is engaged to or what designer’s dresses the movie stars are going to flaunt on the red carpet at the upcoming Golden Horse Awards?

I don't think the Ministry is actually thinking in terms of seizing control, but rather, is simply responding to this in the usual vicious, stodgy, and reactionary way that Taiwan's universities are run, more instinct than calculation, where the answer to all social "problems" is "more control".

The problem is what kind of signal will be read into this letter by university administrators -- whether it is seen in Taiwan's High Context culture as a signal for administrators to more tightly police their schools' individual bulletin boards. As an insightful friend of mine remarked, in that way the Ministry could achieve the effect of implementing authoritarian controls throughout campus BBS systems, without ever having such a stated policy.

Another friend pointed out that as a student remarked on television last night, for eight years the BBS systems at universities bashed Chen Shui-bian, and nothing happened. The when the focus switched to the KMT, the Ministry ultimately moved to send out signals that the debate should be quashed.

The timing is excellent, with just three weeks to go before the big local election too. That clumsy timing suggests again that this letter is knee-jerk.

The irony is that, as yet another insightful commenter noted, the Ministry could have sent around a missive discussing cyber-bullying and cyberstalking, which are a problem, or alerting the universities to the new cyber laws (see discussion below). Further, the Ministry could also have suggested a review of security and content management policies at universities without mentioning politics, especially in light of the new law. At my old university, legally actionable claims about teachers were posted anonymously to the campus bulletin board, and used as the subject of political attacks on teachers, but anyone could gain access to the system and there was no way to know who was posting.

Finally, Danny Bloom's article on the Hu's Girls Incident points out two chilling facts. First, the Taichung Prosecutors were asked to look into the parody. Definitely chilling, but fortunately the prosecutor's office did not pursue it. Second is the new law coming online next year that will result in a dramatic rise in lawsuits....

Come next year, when Taiwan's Data Protection Act will give way to Taiwan's age of online liability, strict new stipulations will put virtually everyone in Taiwan at risk of unknowingly breaching the Personal Data Protection Act, with possible fines of up to US $500,000.

In particular, cyberbullying and cyberstalking (and cyberflaming) will no longer go unpunished, and such things as posting an article or photo of someone else on the internet or in a personal blog will be considered,under the law, to be ''leaking'' personal data, if the person concerned has not given his or her approval.

For example, once the act is enforced, it won't be a good idea to post articles or photos of other people anywhere online without their express permission. If the content of articles or photos posted on the internet pertains to other persons, they must be notified and asked for prior approval, according to sources.

Given the provisions of the act, lawyers representing people who try to fight cyberbullying and cyberstalking will have have more artillery in their arsenals. Even flaming other people in forums and blogs will be subject to legal action. If those flamed wish to press charges they can go ahead, according to sources in the legal field.

The government won't have to censor cybermedia because the "victims" will be able to censor it themselves.

UPDATED: Several commentators have pointed to a similar move earlier this year: remember the Neutrality Act for Academics and its potential chilling effects?

ADDED: Okami below speculates:
I wonder how much the directive from the MOE has to do with Mainland Chinese students. I could see that being an unmentioned yet critical point of the memo. I expect it to get a lot chillier in Taiwan with regards to rights and govt regulations.
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Okami said...

I wonder how much the directive from the MOE has to do with Mainland Chinese students. I could see that being an unmentioned yet critical point of the memo. I expect it to get a lot chillier in Taiwan with regards to rights and govt regulations.

Thanks for the John Feffer piece, that gave me a good laugh.

Michael Turton said...

Okami, that's a very interesting insight.

les said...

Supremely ironic that KMT itself has been trying to influence the student political agenda and discussion through various means since it came to power, yet now it's a problem for students to spend their time talking about politics. So my conclusion is that it's okay for students to spend their time accepting indoctrination by the KMT, and okay for them to discuss KMT talking points, but anything else is wrong and needs to be controlled.
Why am I not surprised by any of this?

jerome in vals said...

The original snippet is loaded with subliminal Eastern-Asian cultural patterns that escape our Judeo-Christian-retooled Hellenic mind.

Through indigene and imported traditions like Mahayana Buddhism (itself rooted in earlier animist and shamanist traditions), those cultural patterns subconsciously link Eastern-asians back to the early primates from which we inherited our genes.

In Eastern-asian societies, the social group is best imaged by a tribe of monkeys. The alpha male, here Jason Hu, is surrounded by available females he is supposed to protect. They are not his harem. They are his charge, i.e. Taichung.

Roving eager young males form the outer circle. To gain access to one of those young females, young males must first get noticed and annointed by the alpha male.

Now you get the picture. Hu is the center of power without whom nothing can be done in Taichung. The women are his domain, Taichung. If you are a young male aspiring to hump one of those females (= leave your mark on Taichung ), you must join the tribe inner circle, i.e. talk to Hu first.

Hu is not asking for your vote, he does not need you. Now, if you want to partake, you must first elect him.

That is what I take away from that very straight-forward clip. A dissenting suggestion, anyone?

Anonymous said...

Turton, this might be relevant to your interests: