The Great Firewall of China: Internet Censorship Run Wild

The past couple of days I’ve been visiting China meeting with some of our technology and channel partners. It just so happens I was present in Beijing for the 20th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Events. Yes it really did happen despite what the Chinese government says. Speaking on Saturday at the F5 APAC Sales Kickoff I found myself staying over the weekend with Sunday off to roam around Beijing like a tourist, something I rarely get a chance to do on business trips. It is amazing to me to see how the Chinese and Taiwanese work on Saturdays. In the US we rarely see that. Europeans chastise Americans for working too hard but I guess they should really see the work ethic in Asia and then we’d look more normal.

Watching the 2008 Beijing Olympics last summer things there certainly seemed more normal than 20 years ago, but being there in person with all the festivities gone things seemed really strange to me. It is very difficult to describe. Maybe I was jaded by all the newspapers I’d read on the way to Beijing. On a nice long 13 hour flight from Washington DC with plenty of reading material I consumed James Kynge’s piece in the Financial Times questioning whether the Western media really understood why the student demonstrators were protesting. He went on ascribing the word “democracy” with the student motivations and questioning whether we or they really knew what it meant despite the fact that he spells out their desires in plan old English which sounds like democracy to me.

“Almost everything fell within its scope: campaigns against corruption, nepotism, inflation, police brutality, bureaucracy, official privilege, media censorship, human rights abuses, cramped student dormitories and the smothering of democratic urges. But to say the demonstrations were to “demand democracy” is an oversimplification.”
James Kynge, Financial Times

It’s almost impossible to describe the strange feeling I got while walking through Tiananmen Square observing the soldiers and the huge portrait of General Mao that dominates the landscape. Maybe part of it was due to the increased tension of the anniversary. Maybe not. Tiananmen has come to symbolize the unspoken and largely unrecognized tension between the economic progress driving modern China and the old fashion communist government still ruling there. The Chinese seem to have a foot in both camps. The eeriness I felt came not only from my surroundings and an understanding of the principles they stood for but also from the reaction of my Chinese and Taiwanese friends. Their usually jubilant outgoing personalities were completely subdued in the square. Was a sign of respect and mourning that drove their thoughts? Perhaps to some extent. But in quiet whispers and conversations out of the ear shot of any “green” uniformed soldiers (versus the “blue uniformed” security guards they confessed to being actually scared to speak for fear of someone or something listening. Challenging them I said, “surely you must be joking.” But it was no joke. Only when we crossed the street into the forbidden city did their usual personalities return.

Of course this began a prolonged conversation over the next 24 hours as we visited the great wall, a new Beijing restaurant and departed through the impressive new Beijing airport. I kept asking and trying to understand. How can a country of so many people be controlled by the minds of so few? What are the real limitations to speak out? And what effect will economic progress have on the political future of China? There was no shortage of stories supporting the fact that the government still does take a very heavy hand to those who disagree. But rather than discuss it, everyday Beijing seems to sweep the event of 20 years ago under the rug. As one of my Chinese friends said, “everyone is embarrassed and we just pretend it never happened.”

At the same time I was traveling through out China, the articles started pouring in about Beijing’s efforts to step up Internet and IT censorship. Upon reading the perspectives pouring in about “Green Dam” I was reminded of the impact the technology industry is having on the whole situation. It was bad enough I couldn’t get to sites like Twitter and Youtube form my hotel room. Now the Chinese government is requiring every PC sold in the country starting July 1st has to have special software blocking all sorts of things. The move is being presented as an attempt to protect children from online pornography but is obviously one more attempt by Beijing take its censorship to a new level. China currently has the world’s most sophisticated and multi-layered system of Internet censorship. Objectionable content on domestic Web sites is deleted or prevented from being published, and access to a large number of overseas Web sites is blocked or “filtered.” Decisions about what to censor are based on the Chinese government’s attempts to control the minds of 1.2B Chinese. There is no transparency or accountability, no public consultation in developing block lists or censorship criteria, and no way to appeal the blockage or removal of Web content.

In a notice to PC makers, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said all PCs shipped in China needed to offer Green Dam/Youth Escort, identified as a “green internet filtering software”, either pre-installed or as part of basic software packages. In May 2008, the government picked Jinhui Technology and Dazheng Language Technology, two Chinese software companies to develop the software, according to a contract award notice from the MIIT. While these companies claim their software is only being used to block sites although last year, researchers discovered that a Chinese version of Skype contained the ability to block politically sensitive words in instant messaging chats, and to keep a record of the use of such words.

While there is obviously a legitimate role for filtering software, we’re starting to see governments take this way too far. Green Dam is only one example of a global trend. Internet censorship is expanding rapidly and now includes a growing number of democracies. Legislators are under growing pressure from family groups to “do something” in the face of all the threats sloshing around the Internet, and the risk of overstepping is very high. In China’s case it’s an open door to abuse power in the attempt to prove the legitimacy of an ailing legacy.

Posted by