The Great Firewall: China's Internet Blockade
Directron Scholarship 2008 Essay No. 116
by Thomas Spencer Thorsett
Current School: Senior at Eden Prairie High School
Intended School: Macalester College
Intended Major: English or literature
Chances are that if this paper were being accessed from an Internet server in China the words 'this page cannot be displayed' would be all the information one could acquire. China's communist leaders have imposed a multitude of regulations on Internet news content aimed at bloggers and other unofficial journalists and news sites (Hilsum). These rules created by China's cabinet will standardize the management of news and information in the country. Supposedly only "healthy and civilized news and information that is beneficial to the improvement of the quality of the nation, beneficial to its economic development and conducive to social progress will be allowed" (Hadlock). What this means is that any website publishing news stories in China is now required to register with the government. In addition, China's Internet police will block any sites and e-mails it deems a threat to society or government policy (Lemke). To dominate the Internet, the government has had to violate human rights, which leads Chinese citizens to disagree.
To maintain control, China has implemented a variety of interventions. China's Internet access restrictions began when a multitude of anti-Japanese, anti-pollution, and anti-corruption protests began to accumulate on the web. Many of these were organized using instant messaging services, chat rooms, and text messages (Tai 108). Since then more than sixty Internet regulations have been created by the PRC (People's Republic of China). By creating the Golden Shield Project, known by many Chinese civilians as "The Great Firewall of China," the government has been able to focus on Internet censors and monitors that discredit their activities (French). This was installed to "construct a communication network and computer information system for police to improve their capability and efficiency" (Tai 107). Government-critical comments posted on forums, bulletin boards, and blogs commonly disappear within minutes thanks to the Internet police task force. This consists of an estimated thirty thousand members (Tai 107). In addition to the government's agents and regulations, citizens are supposed to practice self-censorship, which requires individuals and businesses to censor their own communications to avoid legal and economic repercussions (French).
There are many ways for the Internet secret police and the Golden Shield Project to monitor the Internet, but there are also ways to evade them. Some of the more commonly used methods to censor content include IP blocking, where a web page's address is denied to users; URL filtering, which scans for critical keywords the government deems off limits; and reverse surveillance which automatically allows the government to extract information from the offending system (Hadlock).
Censored content is most commonly found on websites that display information on taboo subjects in China. Not only are subjects such as obscenity, pornography, and criminal activity monitored, but also topics that potentially pose a threat to the government's regime. These topics include Tiananmen Square, freedom of speech, democracy, and Marxist ideas. Also off-limits are sites pertaining to the Falun Gong, the Dalai Lama, and Tibetan independence (Hadlock). The government focuses on domestic content and blocks what officials consider to be subversive using their Golden Shield, which blocks content by preventing IP addresses from being routed through and consists of standard firewall and proxy servers at the Internet gateways (Einhorn). This began in November 2003, and is continued today. According to one observer:
The move is part of ongoing efforts to curtail free expression in China. The government has shut down Internet cafes, jailed journalists who write about corruption, limited foreign content on satellite television stations, and - as of June 2005 - required all writers of weblogs, known as blogs, to register their full identities with the government. (Pan)
To uphold its myriad regulations the government has had to violate both freedom of information and expression. Given China's communist rule, being denied on-line privileges is not as big a surprise as it may seem. However, the inability to access data through the Internet is a violation of human rights. It is widely acknowledged that the Chinese government silences political adversaries, including those who express their views peacefully (Hilsum). Nonetheless, "by the time officials have decided that a topic might prove harmful to the governing party's agenda, an item about it has often already been posted or discussed on hundreds of sites and viewed by many people, defeating some traditional censorship tools" (Kahn). The peculiar thing is that the United States, known the world over for its freedom and democracy, has companies supporting the Chinese government in such practices. This is done for the sake of continued business relations, though many consider it unethical to support the government's actions. Yahoo!'s cooperaton with Chinese authorities led to the detention of Shi Tao, a Chinese journalist. Tao was imprisoned "solely for the legitimate exercise of his right to receive and dispense information, as guaranteed under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which China has signed but not ratified" (Hilsum).
Many fear that if a strong action is not taken by the United States government that this type of practice will not only increase but will spread, which will impact both Chinese citizens and foreign companies working overseas. Companies often claim that the Chinese government is too powerful not to comply with, even those that judge by international human rights standards (Einhorn). Those who challenge the government through the Internet often experience continuous harassment. Such harassment includes "temporary detention; threats to one's family, business or career; and being followed and intimidated by the police" (Lemke).
Naturally, there are Chinese citizens who disagree with the government's actions. However, many Chinese citizens do not actively use the Internet; therefore Internet censorship is not a primary concern for China's majority. The most popular web applications in use are games and messaging services (French). Despite this, China is becoming increasingly aware of its restricted news. On May 9, 2007, legal action was taken by Mr. Yetaai, who "sued Shanghai Telecom, a sub-company of China Telecom, because one of his sites was blocked from access" (Einhorn). His lawsuit was accepted after it was reported through his on-line diary.
Though the firewall is still active, it is fairly easily circumvented by determined web surfers who use proxy servers outside of the firewall. There are several sites and programs that allow free service for uncensored and anonymous access in China, including "Anonymizer, Inc, Psiphon, Tor, and Freenet, a peer-to-peer distributed data store" (French). Other methods include SMS, ambiguous passwords, and use of overseas servers. Those who actively use the Internet are known to spread their knowledge of restricting regulations in a campaign to end China's censorship (French).
China's government is still actively working to prevent Internet users from obtaining information it deems "unhealthy"; but people realize that this goes against their rights and therefore fight back. At this point, denied information rights are not at the top of Chinese citizens priorities (Pan). But as civilization relies more and more on technology this issue is sure to escalate in scope. People have already been jailed for posting the truth on the Internet and lawsuits have already been issued. The Summer Olympics are being held in Beijing this year, and China can hardly afford citizen unrest. If the government continues to deny its citizens free access to information, some observers believe they may soon have more than just frustration on their hands.
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