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Navigating China's web of censors

Discussion in 'Tech, Gadgets & Science Forum' started by MziziMkavu, Mar 27, 2010.

  1. MziziMkavu

    MziziMkavu JF-Expert Member

    Mar 27, 2010
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    Google bows out, leaving a large, complex surveillance system in its wake

    [​IMG]People use computers at a cybercafe in Wuhan, central China in January. There are an estimated 384 million Chinese Internet users, more than three times the figure in 2005.
    [​IMG] View related photos

    Google’s face-off with Beijing over censorship may have struck a philosophical blow for free speech and encouraged some Chinese Netizens by its sheer chutzpah, but it doesn’t do a thing for Internet users in China. It merely hands the job of blocking objectionable content back to Beijing. Its more lasting impact may lie in the global exposure it has given to the Chinese government’s complex system of censorship – an ever-shifting hodgepodge of restrictions on what information users can access, which Web tools they can use and what ideas they can post.
    “You can only guess what the rules are,” said Zhao Jing, a Chinese free-speech activist whose popular blog was deleted by censors from its host server in 2005. “It means you should self-censor, limit your mind and be cautious, because you have no idea where the line is.”
    Censorship in China is unpredictable in part because it employs an array of tools — combining cutting-edge filtering algorithms and software that detects taboo keywords with the blunt instruments of the government’s old propaganda machine. It takes place at different levels, involving government agencies and the private sector.
    “The point of confusion is who is doing what,” says Nart Villeneuve, a cyber security professional and research fellow at the University of Toronto who has done detailed analysis of Chinese Internet censorship. Frequently, what observers assume is blocked by Beijing, is actually taken out of the public arena by Internet companies trying to read the government’s will, he said.
    One tool in the toolbox
    The so-called “Great Firewall,” as China's censorship system is known, filters out politically sensitive material, as well as gambling sites and pornography originating outside China. It reportedly blocks thousands of sites, including those of human rights groups, organizations that promote Tibet or Taiwan independence and Chinese dissident groups.
    The firewall also censors by keywords, causing infuriating interruptions in service.
    For example, if an Internet surfer in China searches for the term “Falun Gong” —a banned and harshly suppressed religious group — the firewall responds by sending a reset packet to his or her computer that results in the display of a default error page. It also causes a gap in service preventing subsequent searches -- even on innocuous topics.
    “If you try to look for a URL path with a banned word or phrase, it will halt your connection, even if the site is not blocked,” said Villaneuve, who runs tests to determine at what point censorship occurs in China.“Then you can’t do a normal query for a little while.”
    Making surfing even more complicated, the taboos are always changing, depending on the political winds.
    After bloody ethnic clashes erupted last summer in China’s predominantly Muslim territory of Xinjiang, the news spread quickly the Internet. Beijing blamed the rioting on ethnic Uyghur separatists organizing through the Web, and shut down Internet access throughout the region, along with text messaging and international calling in some areas. [​IMG]
    Rebecca MacKinnon​
    A screen shot of a message that appeared after a blog post about unrest in Xinjiang was apparently deleted by staff on the Chinese site, Sina.com. The message reads: "Sorry, the address you requested does not exist." The blog was posted as part of a research project on censorship.

    At that point, Beijing also blocked Twitter for all of China, and other popular social networking and sharing sites, including Facebook, YouTube and Flickr. Those roadblocks remain in place eight months later.
    For the vast majority of people in Xinjiang, access to the Internet is still severely restricted. The general public can view only a few sites hand-picked by authorities, including the state-run Xinhua News Agency and People’s Daily — and two Chinese portals, according to the China Daily. Elsewhere in China, despite censorship, Internet users have access to tens of thousands of foreign and domestic sites.
    Occasionally, China also unexpectedly unblocks Web sites. When the capital was flooded with athletes and tourists for the Beijing Olympics in August, for instance, the BBC and Voice of America, which usually are blocked, were suddenly available.
    Within the wall, “self-discipline”
    Arguably, the most stringent censorship in China is conducted by the private sector. The government puts the responsibility for monitoring and censoring material originating inside China on companies that provide Internet service — search engines, portals, social networking sites, chat rooms or photo and video-sharing sites.
    Every search engine or blogging site in China reportedly has a department dedicated to filtering, reviewing and deleting material that the censors know — or guess — the government does not want the public to see. If they get it wrong, these companies risk losing their operating licenses.
    A number of video-sharing sites have suffered this fate, as well as the Chinese blog site, Bullog.cn, known for edgy political commentary and counter-culture fare. When the government shut the site in January 2009, amid an anti-porn it crackdown, it accused the site of hosting “low and vulgar” content.
    Two popular micro-blogging services similar to Twitter were suspended last July, about the same time that the foreign social networking sites were blocked, for refusing to edit or delete content. The larger of the two, Fanfou, boasted more than a million users before it ran afoul of authorities.
    “Either the Web site censors sensitive feeds or the Web site will be censored,” Fanfou founder Wang Xing wrote in one of his last posts on the site, according to a report in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post. “This uncomfortable, but necessary decision has to be made.”
    Self-discipline is portrayed as a patriotic duty by the government, which confers annual “Internet Self-Discipline Awards” to industry executives for effectively censoring themselves.
    But the way “self-discipline” is carried out varies widely among the companies because the government provides only broad guidance, not detailed instructions. While there are topics that are universally understood to be taboo — anything supportive of Falun Gong, for instance — interpretation of the rules varies widely.
    For that reason, it is easy to mistake unexpected content for an intentional policy shift, when it may indicate only that censorship is very patchy in China. On March 16, for example, we reported on this site that Google appeared to have stopped censoring its Chinese site, because searches on the site produced surprisingly sensitive content, including the famous “Tank Man” image from the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. That conclusion was incorrect, censorship researcher Villeneuve concluded after running some tests, which showed the same content showing up on other search engines in China.
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