The Great Firewall of China

Becky Hogge
19 May 2005

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In December 1993, talking to Time magazine, technologist and civil libertarian John Gilmore created one of the first verses in internet lore: “The net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it”. But according to a report published by George Soros’s Open Net Initiative (ONI), the Chinese government are doing a great job of disproving this theory. On 11 May, Google announced it would set up shop in the People’s Republic by the end of 2005. What can this mean for the citizens of China, and the citizens of the internet?

The Chinese effort to censor the internet is a feat of technology, legislation and manpower. According to the BBC, which is almost completely blocked within the “great firewall of China” (as it is known among techies), 50,000 different Chinese authorities “do nothing but monitor traffic on the internet”. No single law exists to permit this mass invasion of privacy and proscription of free speech. Rather, hundreds of articles in dozens of pieces of legislation work to obfuscate the mandate of the government to maintain political order through censorship.

According to Internet Filtering in China in 2004-2005: A Country Study, the most rigorous survey of Chinese internet filtering to date, China’s censorship regime extends from the fatpipe backbone to the street cyber-café. Chinese communications infrastructure allows packets of data to be filtered at “choke points” designed into the network, while on the street liability for prohibited content is extended onto multiple parties – author, host, reader – to chilling effect. All this takes place under the watchful eye of machine and human censors, the latter often volunteers.

The ramifications of this system, as the ONI’s John Parley stressed when he delivered the report to the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission in April, “should be of concern to anyone who believes in participatory democracy”. The ONI found that 60% of sites relating to opposition political parties were blocked, as were 90% of sites detailing the Nine Commentaries, a series of columns about the Chinese Communist Party published by the Hong Kong-based Epoch Times and associated by some with the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong.

The censorship does not end at the World Wide Web. New internet-based technologies, which looked to lend hope to free speech when ONI filed its last report on China in 2002, are also being targeted. Although email censorship is not as rampant as many (including the Chinese themselves) believe, blogs, discussion forums and bulletin boards have all been targeted through various measures of state control.

What then, of China’s 94 million web surfers? One discussion thread at Slashdot, the well-respected and popular discussion forum for techno-libertarians, is telling. When a well-meaning westerner offered a list of links prefaced with “assuming that you can read Slashdot, here are a few web pages that your government would probably prefer you not to read”, one poster, Hung Wei Lo responded: “I have travelled to China many times and work with many H1-B’s [temporary workers from outside US] from all parts of China. All of them are already quite knowledgeable about all the information provided in the links above, and most do not hesitate to engage in discussions about such topics over lunch. The fact that you feel all 1.6 billion Chinese are most certainly blind to these pieces of information is a direct result of years of indoctrination of Western (I’m assuming American) propaganda.”

Indeed, the recent anti-Japanese protests have been cited by some as an example of how the Chinese people circumvent their state’s diligent censorship regime using networked technologies such as mobile text messages (SMS), instant messaging, emails, bulletin boards and blogs to communicate and organise. The argument here of course is that the authorities were ambivalent towards these protests – one blogger reports that the state sent its own SMS during the disturbances: “We ask the people to express your patriotic passion through the right channel, following the law and maintaining order”.

China will have to keep up with the slew of emerging technologies making untapped networked communication more sophisticated by the day – RSS feeds, social bookmarking systems like del.icio.us and Furl and fledgling Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP, or telephony over the internet) packages such as Skype. Judging by the past record, it cannot be assumed that the state censorship machinery will not be able to meet these future challenges.

What does this mean for the internet? As the authors of the ONI report point out, China has the opportunity to export its censorship technology and methodology to states such as Vietnam, North Korea, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, to whom it already acts as a regional internet access provider. Further, as the second largest market in the world, it is a natural attractor for global web firms. The announcement that Google has secured a licence to operate in China has prompted many to ask how the US company will practice business there whilst staying true to its informal company motto “Don’t be evil”.

Already Google has been accused of collaborating with the Chinese government by omitting from its Google News service links blocked by the state. If these two experts in internet traffic – Google in cataloguing it and China in censoring it – start working together, what can we expect? Will Google attempt to persuade the Chinese government to open up the free flow of information? Could the Chinese government force Google to hand over search logs and other identifiable information?

It is not only repressive regimes that have an interest in the censorship of the internet. Technologies now used by the Chinese, like choke points for packet filtering, were advocated in the 1990s by rightsholder lobbies in the National Information Infrastructure talks in the United States. And the acceptance of VoIP as a mainstream telephony solution has been slowed by the concerns of US and British security services that conversations cannot be tapped. What the situation in China demonstrates to techno-libertarians is that they can no longer rely on John Gilmore’s old maxim: from now on, the internet may need a little human help routing around the “damage” of censorship.

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