Chinese Internet censorship: An inside look

Cisco, VPNs and other topics related to Internet access in China

James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, has experienced "The Great Firewall of China" firsthand, an experience people from around the world will share this summer when the Olympics comes to that country. Fallows talks about Internet censorship in China in this Q&A.

James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, has experienced "The Great Firewall of China" firsthand, an experience people from around the world will share this summer when the Olympics comes to that country. Based in Beijing, Fallows has researched the underlying technology that the Chinese use for Internet censorship, and he explained it in a recent article titled "The Connection Has Been Reset." We e-mailed Fallows questions about how the Chinese government controls Internet content available to its citizens, and here's what he had to say (Check out our slideshow on the 10 ways the Chinese Internet is different from yours).

You describe four blocking mechanisms that the Chinese government uses to prevent Internet users from viewing content considered harmful. How common is it for Chinese Internet users to experience these sorts of redirections, resets and time-out mechanisms? Can you describe your own Internet surfing experience in China?

If you work from a Chinese Internet cafe – which is still where the vast majority of Chinese Internet activity happens, since so few people have connected computers in their own homes – you experience all of these blocking mechanisms as a matter of course. In some places, like schools, the blocking can be much cruder and indiscriminate. For instance, I have been in several public schools where the "connected" Internet computers were prevented from using any search engine whatsoever. It can be surprisingly hard to get around the 'Net if you can't run any searches! In cafes and in most home connections, all the mechanisms I describe would prevail.

In some hotels and other buildings that cater to Western visitors, the controls may be somewhat relaxed. The authorities don't really care that much about what non-Chinese citizens are able to find. But from my apartments in first Shanghai and now Beijing, I was not able to reach a wide variety of sites – including, often, my own blog at the Atlantic – unless I connected through a VPN. As a matter of course I fire up my VPN at the start of any online session, not just for security but because otherwise I'll be blocked the first time I try a Wikipedia or Technorati link.

Your article says the Chinese Internet control system is constantly changing and that citizens don't know what is off-limits on any given day. Does that make the control system more or less effective in your opinion?

My friend Eamonn Fingleton, says in a new book about China (In the Jaws of the Dragon) that many kinds of government control in China are surprisingly effective precisely because they are so variable and unpredictable in the way they're enforced. Fingleton uses the term "selective enforcement" to describe this process; some Chinese people refer to it by a Chinese saying that boils down to, "One eye open, one eye shut." The idea is that if you're never quite sure when, why and how hard the boom might be lowered on you, you start controlling yourself, rather than being limited strictly by what the government is able to control directly.When it comes to the Internet, this haziness about just what is and is not permissible has two implications. At a purely technical level, it makes it harder to reverse-engineer the firewall's filters. One day, you can reach all pages at the BBC. The next day they're blocked. If you're trying to game out the system, you're stymied. And at a social level, it makes it hard for people to be sure that they're ever operating in a truly safe zone, since the rules of enforcement might shift tomorrow.

Which is worse: the Chinese government's Internet control system or the censorship systems used by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) or Singapore? Why? 

Well, I don't like to use terms like "worse" in this situation. I will say that China's approach is less transparent. According to Andrew Lih, whom I quote in the story, when filters in the UAE or Singapore block a transmission, they tell you that, right in your face. When you can't reach a site from a computer in China, you're never quite sure what's happened. Is the problem with your ISP? With the site itself? Or is the firewall? You never know for sure.

Are average Chinese Internet users afraid of the government's Internet control system?

No. To begin with, not that many of them are even aware of it. The government discourages upfront discussion of the Great Firewall's existence, what sites or search terms are forbidden, etc. Moreover, to the extent people are aware of it, indications are that they are hardly up in arms. My wife, Deborah Fallows, represents the Pew Internet project in China. In March of this year she released a study showing that a strong majority of Chinese Internet users welcomed the idea of controls over Web content and thought it was only natural that the government would do the controlling. This is a startling concept to many Westerners, but she explains the logic of it here

Many U.S. organizations -- like libraries and schools -- use similar blocking methods as the Chinese government to prevent users from going to pornography, gambling or hate speech sites. For example, when a student at my daughter's school was arrested for having a gun in his car, her school blocked access to the media coverage of the incident from the school's computers. Why is the Chinese Internet control system so objectionable

"Objectionable" is your word, not mine. The point I would make is that it is much more thorough-going. In all matters of expression and inquiry in the United States, the default assumption is that people should be able to read or write whatever they want. The exceptions requiring control, like those you mention, are just that: exceptions. For instance: schoolchildren are exceptional cases, for obvious reasons; and public libraries could also be exceptions, for reasons of public decorum. In China, there is no such default assumption about individuals' presumed right to see, read or say whatever they want. That's the difference.

You mention two exceptions to the Chinese Internet control system: VPNs and proxies. Obviously, the Chinese can't shut down the VPNs or foreign businesses wouldn't operate in the country. Why don't they shut down proxies?

There is a bigger point here, which I think would surprise most Westerners who have not spent time in China: As a rule, the Chinese Communist Party is surprisingly selective in the repression and control it exercises within the country. In certain areas – "splittist" discussions like those about Tibet or Taiwan, challenges to Communist Party legitimacy, a few others – it tolerates no deviation at all and cracks down immediately. But in many others it tries to be only as repressive as it has to be. That is, it has some awareness of not needlessly antagonizing the population. When it comes to the Internet, this principle also applies. If it absolutely shut down VPNs and proxies, it would probably create more problems for itself, a lot more backlash and trouble, than it would avoid. So as long as VPN and proxy use by ordinary Chinese people remains relatively low, it's not worth the bother to close them down.

Does the Chinese government's Internet censorship strategy work at keeping online information "wholesome?" For example, is there less pornography available online to Chinese Internet users than there is elsewhere? 

The "wholesomeness" of what is on the Internet is a big issue in public discussions of 'Net policy. Concern about sexual predators -- and even more basically about "addiction" to online games – comes up in the papers and generally builds public support for controls on the Internet. I am sure people looking for pornography can find it here as anyplace else, but it's less obviously on display in China (online and real-world) than a lot of other places.

In reading your article, it seems to me that the Chinese Internet control system is actually quite brilliant because it succeeds in making, as you point out, "the quest for information just enough of a nuisance that people generally won’t bother." Isn't it really up to the Chinese citizens themselves to care enough to get around the Internet control system? Do you see indications that they are trying to do that?

I agree that the system is quite impressive on its own terms. At least for now, it seems to have figured out the way to get maximum possible "benefits," in terms of limiting disruptive discussion or information, without having maximum oppressiveness or crudeness. Westerners do wonder why the Chinese public doesn't rise up to seek maximum freedom of information on its own. Part of the answers might be found in the Pew study, mentioned above. But at a more basic level, as one person I quoted in the article pointed out: Right now, even with the controls, more Chinese people have more access to more and freer information than has ever been true in the country's very long history. So for now it's understandable that more of them are thinking about what they can find than what they can't.

Cisco says it sold China the same mirroring routers that it makes available to any organization that needs to monitor Internet usage by its employees. If that's true, why should Cisco be criticized more than any other network vendor that sells gear to the Chinese

This was a minor, passing point in my article, which reflected the fact that I had not done serious independent reporting on the question. What I can do is convey the prevailing view on the question among the Chinese net-cognoscenti. From this perspective, Cisco did a favor to the Chinese government several years ago by selling them the mirroring routers on which the Great Firewall is based, at a time when Chinese authorities could not easily have produced the systems on their own. The likely use of the routers was well understood – and it should be obvious why selling them to a government which intends to monitor its citizens is different from selling them to some company that wants to monitor its employees. But whatever the merits of the argument back then, the entire question is now moot. The Chinese authorities could buy the necessary routers from a variety of sources – notably from the homegrown firm Huawei. So, really few people here spend much time worrying about Cisco’s role anymore.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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