The great firewall of China

March 20, 2008

The internet is a valuable source of news and information - unless you live in a country where it's censored. Patricia Maunder reports.

A computer-generated image released by the the Beijing Public Security Bureau shows the cartoon figures of "virtual police" who will be patrolling the internet to combat online pornography and other "illicit activity.

A computer-generated image released by the the Beijing Public Security Bureau shows the cartoon figures of "virtual police" who will be patrolling the internet to combat online pornography and other "illicit activity.

IMAGINE living in a country where bird flu is a constant danger, yet you can't look it up on Google. You're diagnosed with HIV AIDS but you can't search for a Facebook support network. You're trying to research a school project on religion but Wikipedia's content on the subject is blocked. You're in the mood for some distraction but can't access YouTube.

Even worse, imaging living in a country where trying to find this information online could land you in trouble.

This is the everyday reality for people in China, where online censorship is carried out by 30,000 internet police and state-owned internet service providers. And China is far from the only country in which controlling information and opinion in cyberspace is pervasive.

Based in Paris, where it's known as Reporters sans Frontieres, Reporters without Borders lists those nations considered to be among the worst "internet enemies": Belarus, Burma, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.

Recent instances of online censorship in these countries include the total shutdown of the internet in Burma during September's uprising to prevent dissidents from sending news to the outside world, Syria's block on Facebook in November and Iran's closure of 24 internet cafes in December.

However, it is China that most often makes headlines for online censorship, a program dubbed the Great Firewall of China in the West.

China syndrome

The Chinese Government's latest attempt to control cyberspace was the January announcement that all video-sharing websites must have Government approval. Since February, only state-owned or controlled companies can gain a license to upload video content.

These rules have been added to the Public Pledge on Self-Discipline for the China Internet Industry, which must be signed by organisations wanting access to China's growing internet market. These organisations, whether local or foreign, must abide by "the moral code of socialism" and uphold China's national security and reputation.

In November, Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang was told "morally you are pygmies" by US Congressman Tom Lantos after it was revealed that the company had identified Chinese dissident Shi Tao to his government. Shi had forwarded an email to overseas human-rights groups in which the Government had ordered journalists not to cover the 15th anniversary of the bloody 1989 suppression of protesters in Tiananmen Square. Using information supplied by Yahoo, Shi was identified, accused of exposing state secrets and in 2004 was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment.

"We don't believe that the Chinese system (of online censorship) would be possible without the assistance of companies like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo", says Sophie Peer, Amnesty International Australia's China campaign co-ordinator.

Amnesty lobbies such companies to "develop clear policies that state they will not automatically comply with the demands" of the Chinese Government, she says. "The Chinese constitution itself enshrines freedom of expression, so there's certainly legal argument to be said that Shi Tao's email to the US was not a punishable offence."

One foreign company that has refused to sign China's internet pledge is Wikipedia. Its founder, Jimmy Wales, has been vocal in his opposition, saying in 2006 that censorship was "antithetical to the philosophy of Wikipedia".

"We stand for the freedom of information and for us to compromise I think would send very much the wrong signal: that there's no one left on the planet who's willing to say, 'You know what? We're not going to give up'."

The Chinese Government has responded by declaring that Wikipedia is without credibility and, according to Ms Peer, "it's one of the first sites to be blocked when a (sensitive) event comes up or when there's going to be public attention in China". She adds that even when it is available, specific pages are blocked.

According to Ms Peer, Wikipedia is just one of a long list of websites and search terms that are censored in various ways. "Type in the words 'Amnesty International' into and you may get what look like results but when you click on them you'll have a 'gateway timeout'," she says.

Other outcomes include error messages and being rerouted to a Chinese Government page about the site or subject.

Because all ISPs in China are state-controlled and full identification must be shown at internet cafes, those who try to look up blacklisted terms or websites can be identified. Access to those terms and sites fluctuate and the blacklist is not made public, leading to what Ms Peer describes as an "alarming" level of self-censorship.

Since August last year there have been some cheerful little reminders about not looking at censored material: cute animated "cybercops" trekking across browsers every half hour.

"The official line is that it's to stop people looking at fraudulent or pornographic material," Ms Peer says. Amnesty International suggests "it's another reminder that the user is being monitored and they should be careful of all content they're looking at".

There is evidence suggesting some people are accessing blocked websites and subjects by using proxy servers or virtual private networks (VPNs). But according to Ms Peer, "as technology improves . . . you have more and more sophisticated means of censorship. Where the growth of the internet to most countries means more access to information, in China it can mean more ways to deny access".

ALTHOUGH online censorship in Western democracies is not on the level of countries on the Reporters without Borders list, it does occur.

Laws that were around long before cyberspace exert some control over internet activity, including those relating to defamation, copyright and racism. However, the main focus of online censorship in countries such as Australia has been pornography, particularly child pornography.

Internet censorship legislation was introduced to Australia in January 2000 with the Commonwealth Net Oppression Act, which regulates ISPs and content hosts. State and territory laws were gradually introduced to regulate the activities of internet users and content providers, but are not uniform. This adds to the complexity of a specific state, territory, province or country's legislation applying to online content that can, in theory, have ISPs, hosts, content providers and users anywhere in the world.

In its original form the legislation was intended to force ISPs to block certain content, something that in 2004 the then federal minister for communications Helen Coonan said was "highly problematic". She based her views on a Commonwealth report on internet censorship laws tabled earlier that year.

Senator Coonan said: "What does work is greater information and parental supervision", which was the focus of the government's subsequent NetAlert campaign.

However, the new Labor Government has returned to the mandatory filtering approach. On December 31, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy said plans were under way to introduce legislation requiring ISPs to provide Australians with a "clean feed". This would be determined by a list of banned content maintained by the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

"Labor makes no apologies to those that argue that any regulation of the internet is like going down the Chinese road," Senator Conroy said. "If people equate freedom of speech with watching child pornography, then the Rudd Labor Government is going to disagree."

He added that this filtering would not affect internet speeds and that those who wanted uncensored access would need to opt out of the "clean feed".

Civil libertarians and advocates of a free internet have criticised this move towards mandatory filtering. Dr Peter John Chen, a research associate at Monash University's National Centre for Australian Studies, wrote in The Age recently after Senator Conroy's announcement: "The underlying belief that computers can perfect or protect our morality smacks of a strange mixture of technological ignorance and faith."

He and other critics point to a host of problems such as the cost of reimbursing ISPs, the potential that it will not be effective (for example, is it possible to control overseas ISPs or activity in the worldwide Second Life site?) and the secrecy of the blacklist.

Danny Yee, vice-chairman of Electronic Frontiers Australia, an online civil liberties organisation that has tried to review this list, says only the "moral minority" want the internet censored.

"There are internet service providers that provide filtered feeds already...but the take-up of these products is minuscule", he says. "Most parents think they can do a better job than the government can when it comes to raising their own children. Even the ones who want everybody else censored often don't think they need it themselves."

Despite his reservations about past and possible future government control of cyberspace in Australia, Mr Yee believes "a lot of censorship legislation is going to be done for show rather than for actually achieving any purpose".

"I don't think we're ever going to see the kind of censorship where a little box flashes up on the screen that says 'your access to this site has been prohibited under Internet Censorship Act 2009' kind of thing because I think there would be an outcry if that happened."

Time will tell how restrictive the Federal Government's promised internet legislation will be. But chances are that anyone determined enough will be able to access what they want.

John Lenarcic, an RMIT lecturer specialising in IT social topics and public policy, says people paint the internet as "the saviour of humankind or a place where there are nasties lurking around every corner. I like to think that the internet is just another tool that people have created like the telegraph system. The difference with the internet is its virtual nature, so it's a bit difficult to put walls around things that in fact don't exist."

Even the Great Firewall of China is not without its flaws, as the use of proxy servers and VPNs suggest.

It is unlikely that the attention brought to Chinese censorship during August's Olympics will strike a fatal blow to the wall, as the government is expected to strategically relax internet blocking in areas of Beijing frequented by foreign tourists and journalists during the games.

What is more likely is that the Government will slowly dismantle the wall. A document titled Storming the Fortress: A Research Report on China's Political System Reform after the 17th Party Congress was prepared by a Chinese Communist Party study group and released this year. The report advocates liberalisation to many aspects of Chinese society in the next decade, including the introduction of laws to "effectively halt unconstitutional and unlawful interference in media activities".