Great Firewall of China
Image source: greatfirewallofchina.org
In western society, most people take the mostly unrestricted nature of their internet access for granted. Whilst there has always been arguments made for censorship – the tracking and censorship of inappropriate and illegal images, the sanctioning of sources proliferating religious, racial and political hatred etc… – the large proportion of the online community from western and/or democratic countries give little thought to the resources available to them. The reality is, that for many online users, the internet is from free. Recently when doing some checks on our blogs global availability, we visited the greatfirewallofchina.org project, which has until recently been a useful tool in checking whether access was allowed to specific pages in China. It would seem now that it’s testing service has not been able to keep up with the advancing complexity of Chinese information suppression and becoming unreliable has been shutdown by the site administrators. In light of this, and a growing global concern at the activities of China and other suppressive governments, Milestone decided to have a quick look at the background.
In mid 2002, users in China suddenly discovered they were no longer able to access the Google search engine. What was initially thought to be an error was quickly discovered to be one of the first steps in the Chinese governments campaign against what it sees as a major threat to it’s power base: the Internet. For some time there has been awareness of China’s growing efforts to control online content in the world’s media. The Guardian reported in an article back in 2005 that the size of the internet police force was estimated to have exceeded 30,000 members, and there had been the addition of a new division of ‘commentators’ who according to the same article quoted the deputy director of the local propaganda department in the city of Suqian, in Jiangsu, Zhang Fenglin, as saying: “In the information age and the internet age, the most important and critical mission in front of us is how to seize the initiative on internet opinion and how to seize the high point of internet opinion,”. As the internet grows in size and complexity, so to does China’s sophistication in dealing with it’s perceived enemy. The Golden Shield Project, started in 1998, began the process in November 2003, and the first part of the project passed the national inspection in 2006 in Beijing, is part of what is sometimes known outside of mainland China as the Great Firewall of China (in reference both to its role as a network firewall and of course the iconic and historic Great Wall of China). The system blocks content by preventing IP Addresses from being routed through and consists of standard firewalls and proxy servers at the Internet Gateways. The system also selectively engages in DNS Poisoning when particular sites are requested. The government does not appear to be systematically examining Internet content, as this appears to be technically impractical. (source: Guardian)
So what does all this mean? Amnesty International notes that China “has the largest recorded number of imprisoned journalists and cyber-dissidents in the world.” The offences of which they are accused include communicating with groups abroad, opposing the persecution of the Falun Gong, signing online petitions, and calling for reform and an end to corruption. (source: Global Internet Freedom Consortium). Apart from anything else, the mounting evidence of suppression, incarceration and covert guidance of online conversation does little to give the world confidence in China’s promised improvement in the area of human rights.
Worryingly, the Chinese example is not an isolated case. In 2006 the organization Reporters without Borders published a list of the 13 “enemies of the Internet”. In 2008 the list was further updated to include: Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Zimbabwe. (source: Guardian). Even more worryingly is how this is all being achieved. The sheer amount of technological investment to manage such censorship is staggering, which in turn creates business opportunities to companies willing to exploit censorship in a technical support and development capacity. As Jo Glanville of the Guardian has stated: “One of the most popular filtering software programmes is SmartFilter, owned by Secure Computing in California, a company that’s just been bought by McAffee for $465m (£311m). (Nov 2008) SmartFilter has been used by some of the world’s most authoritarian regimes: Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Sudan, as well as in the US and the UK.” Additionally he points to several other technology companies such as Cisco who as a technology supplier ”sells networking technology to China and has been described as “the internet’s plumber”.”
Internet censorship has become and increasingly hot issue, and plays a far greater role in our daily lives than we are aware. Political pressure is mounting from around the world, but perhaps a more pertinent question needs to be asked: If we can’t even prevent our own technological giants and governments from supplying, supporting and utilizing the same or similar technologies, then how much chance do the suppressed online communities of China and other censoring countries really have?