Midjourney is a relatively young company that runs software to generate images from text. It generates these images after training on images created by real human beings. We need not rehash the issues that I noted with respect to the artificial intelligence (“intelligence” is the operative word) in the context of search engine text generation. Instead, this article will cover another interesting aspect of Midjourney: Chinese Communist Party-inspired censorship.
The CEO of Midjourney, Mr. David Holz, gave an interview to the Washington Post, which the Post published on March 30, 2023, as part of a larger article about content moderation on Midjourney. In light of the fact that I have little interest in Midjourney and similar tools in and of themselves, I will focus on a particular content moderation policy of the company articulated by Mr. Holz in the article. The Post noted that Midjourney can be used to create images featuring world leaders and politicians such as President Joe Biden, former President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Pope Francis. However, there is one world leader who is expressly off limits. The identity of this leader should come to no surprise for people who, like me, have followed the tendency of purportedly American companies and officials to import Chinese Communist Censorship. But rather than tell you why Mr. Holz saw to it that Mr. Xi Jinping is off limits for Midjourney users, I quote the pertinent paragraph from the Post’s report containing his quote.
‘We just want to minimize drama,’ the company’s founder and CEO, David Holz, said last year in a post on the chat service Discord. ‘Political satire in china is pretty not-okay,’ he added, and ‘the ability for people in China to use this tech is more important than your ability to generate satire.’David Holz
Wow. Mr. Holz is a true humanitarian. Lest you doubt his humanitarianism, Mr. Holz assures us that he is adopting Chinese Communist Party censorship policies and applying them outside China’s borders because doing so is for the greater good of humanity:
We’re not motivated by money and in this case the greater good is obviously people in China having access to this tech.David Holz
I am moved? Are you moved? I certainly am. By the way, the Post notes that Midjourney subscriptions run from $10 to $60 per month.
When I read Mr. Holz’s quote, I almost begrudgingly respected him. For example, I wrote an article about numerous incidents wherein Microsoft, in operating Bing, exported its Chinese censorship to Bing searches outside China, and then offered dubious explanations for how this occurred. While the exact chain of events in each of the numerous incidents was unclear, I expressed skepticism of Microsoft’s consistent reliance on unknown technical issues. Here, Mr. Holz is forthright about intentionally exporting Chinese Communist Party censorship abroad. Moreover, he takes responsibility for it. Mr. Holz voluntarily kowtowed with respect to censorship in China, and he then applied that censorship globally sua sponte. But alas, I cannot give Mr. Holz credit for one reason. Rather than admit that his amoral behavior is motivated by avarice, he claims to be acting for the greater good. To borrow a quote from the eloquent Mr. Holz, this dishonesty “is pretty not-okay.”
My issue with Midjourney’s behavior is a particular one. For the sake of clarity, allow me to make clear what my issue is not.
Firstly, I do not care whether people can use Midjourney to create ridiculous images of world leaders and other well-known individuals. While I am not a fan of “AI” image generation based on textual prompts as a general matter, I suppose it could have some uses provided that it is not being trained on copyrighted, original works. (For whatever it is worth, Adobe’s Firefly, referenced in the Post article, sounds like it solves some of these issues from the Post’s brief description.) However, such tools may have some legitimate, non-silly use-case. But one use-case they do not have is creating political humor or satire beyond the level of accidental comedy. Using Midjourney to create images of Mr. Xi is just as much of a waste of time as using it to create images of Mr. Biden or Mr. Trump. These AI tools will not produce creative, meaningful, incisive political commentary, nor will they create better memes than what one can manage with a raster editor. Some people miss the real problem with what Midjourney is doing. See, for example, the Post’s discussion of some enterprising Midjourney fans from Taiwan, which China threatens with invasion on a biweekly basis:
A Taiwanese site offers a guide on how to use Midjourney to create images mocking Xi and features lots of Winnie the Pooh, the cartoon character censored in China and commonly used as a Xi taunt.Washington Post
Yes, this will show Midjourney what’s what. The solution to Midjourney exporting Chinese Communist Party censorship abroad is not to just not use Midjourney. The solution instead is to give Midjourney money while devising methods that are too-cute-by-four-fifths to get around its Chinese Communist Party-flavored censorship. There are millions of people in China who have to devise methods like this to criticize their government because they are actually ruled by the Chinese Communist Party. This Taiwanese site is advocating that people outside of China reduce themselves to the same status. (To the extent the guide may be for people in China, I will suggest that there are bolder ways to engage in risky political commentary and satire.)
Stop unnecessarily giving money to people who are open about the fact that they disdain you and your values.
(With that being said, it would be funny if the Taiwan site’s end-arounds inadvertently resulted in Midjourney being banned in China.)
In light of the fact that it is my position that no one should waste their life feeding Midjourney “Xi Jinping” prompts, one may wonder why I take issue with Mr. Holz’s posture at all. The issue is one we are seeing far too often in the United States and in the greater Western world: Purportedly non-Chinese companies globalizing Chinese censorship mores.
The Chinese Communist Party’s censorship policies in China are bad enough when they are limited to China. However, the Chinese Communist Party is sovereign in China. People outside of China cannot change the Party’s speech policies. Thus, Chinese companies incorporating Chinese censorship policies into their businesses is undesirable, but to be expected. For example, I read a Reuters article about the Baidu search engine’s chatbot, Ernie, not returning answers for certain queries about Mr. Xi. (Baidu is China’s largest search engine and one can roughly think of it as China’s domestic answer to Google.) I have no strong opinion here. Baidu is a Chinese company. I have no particular use-case for Baidu, especially since its entire UI is in Chinese, but were I to use Baidu for research or something to that effect, I would naturally expect it to only deliver results curated in accordance with Chinese laws and regulations. Baidu is not exporting Chinese censorship abroad so much as it is a Chinese company that is accessible abroad. People should assume that other Chinese companies that are accessible in the West are subject to the same oversight, with the most notable examples being Zoom and Byte Dance’s TikTok. (Yandex is a similar case in the search engine sphere with its roots in Russia.)
The problem with Midjourney and others is that they are behaving in abhorrent ways as purportedly American companies. American companies that want to do business in China are necessarily required to make certain compromises when operating in China. Each company must decide to what extent they are willing to compromise. For example, both Microsoft (although I will note that Microsoft showed it has limits with Linkedin) and Apple have been highly deferential to the Chinese Communist Party’s rules in order to operate in China, whereas Google (not perfect, however) and Facebook have been less so. There is plenty of room to debate how far foreign companies should be willing to go to do business in China, and this debate ought to take into account the world as it actually exists today. That debate is beyond the scope of the instant article. However, regardless of the question of how far is too far for bending to the Chinese Communist Party in China, companies should never export their concessions in China to people outside China. For a dangerous case, see my 2020 discussion on attempts at censoring discussion about a certain virus that was going around at the time.
The Chinese Communist Party rules by force within its borders. Through force, it can and does censor speech, persecute Christians, intern Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and institute national infanticide and organ harvesting programs. For these reasons and more, life is difficult, if not tragic, for millions when the Chinese Communist Party is sovereign. However, the Party is not sovereign outside of China.
Mr. Holz’s decision to apply Chinese Communist Party censorship rules outside of China is reprehensible not because it will deprive us of dumb “AI” images of Mr. Xi, but instead because it tries to normalize subjecting people outside of China to Chinese censorship. The Chinese Communist Party’s policies are bad enough as they are applied to the citizens and nationals of China, many of whom are less than satisfied with the state of affairs. We do not need them in the United States. Every American company that applies Chinese censorship abroad undermines the Republic and contributes to growing cultural rot.
Midjourney’s community guidelines remind users that Midjourney is not a democracy. This is true. However, unlike the people of China, Americans and others similarly situated have far greater freedom to choose what technology to use. Far be it from me to tell Midjourney users what to do, but it would be heartening to see them wish Mr. Holz luck until he decides on a better policy than exporting special Chinese Communist Party censorship rules abroad.