means is ‘really, really complicated.’ “
A Higher Firewall
The Chinese government operates the world’s most sophisticated national Internet filtering system. Though often called the Great Firewall, it is not one entity but, rather, a mix of strategies. Filters at the ISP level block banned Western websites (including YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, and the Guardian’s site) and can block websites whose URLs contain any of an ever-growing list of banned keywords related to politically sensitive topics. The government stepped up its efforts in 2009, especially before the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown on June 4 and the 60th anniversary of China’s National Day on October 1. The regime even unplugged the entire Net in the Urumqi region to block reports of violent protests over the ethnically motivated murders of migrant workers. Finally, the government for a short time required that all computers be sold with porn filtering software known as Green Dam preinstalled. (Faced with international and domestic outrage when it emerged that the filter also blocked political speech–and was buggy and insecure regardless of its intended function–officials announced an indefinite delay.) It was a hacking attack that Google said had targeted the Gmail accounts of human rights activists that precipitated the company’s March decision to stop censoring search results and shut down its site in mainland China.
To get around the blocks, some people use tools such as Ultrareach, Dynaweb, and Tor (see “Dissent Made Safer,” May/June 2009), which enable them to connect to banned websites via proxy computers outside the country. But government censors have increasingly been blocking the proxies, too. And in truth, most Chinese Internet users don’t bother with Western sites at all. Over the past decade, homegrown alternatives to popular Western Web 2.0 sites have become extraordinarily popular. Instead of Facebook, China has Douban, whose users are generally anonymous and gravitate toward topics such as movie and book critiques rather than personal news. Instead of YouTube, China has YouKu, which naturally tilts toward Chinese topics. China’s bulletin-board sites–led by QQ, the second most popular website in China and the 10th most popular in the world–are teeming with debates over current events. Hal Roberts, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard and a leading researcher on Internet filtering and surveillance, says that sites hosted in China account for about 95 percent of page views there. “Whereas a country like Turkey will get upset at a video about the Armenian genocide and block YouTube,” he says, “China blocks YouTube but also gives people YouKu, which is censored, but which they say is better anyway, natively in Mandarin, and run by Chinese people.”
The Chinese government allows these sites to flourish only because they have agreed to censor themselves. But the forbidden topics are not clearly defined, and the extent of the censorship varies. “In China everyone knows there are hidden rules,” says Isaac Mao, a Chinese software engineer and venture capitalist based in Shanghai, who became one of China’s first bloggers in 2002. Criticism of the regime, promotion of democracy, and advocacy of human rights or Tibetan independence are often censored; so is discussion of specific incidents and scandals ranging from the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989 to the Sichuan earthquake scandal of 2008, in which the collapse of many shoddily built school buildings contributed to the deaths of more than 5,000 children. The Chinese government increasingly imposes heavy fines or shutdowns–or even jail time for principals–to make local Web companies follow these implicit rules. A few years ago, a government officer would “call your phone, ask you to delete some article in one day, or in [a few] hours,” says Huo Ju, a computer programmer in Shanghai, who runs a technology blog that is blocked in China. “The Chinese government didn’t close websites or companies. But in 2009, many websites [were] closed. They also delete articles, and they try to control opinion direction.” Meanwhile, the government rewards good behavior. Rebecca MacKinnon, an expert on the Chinese Internet who is now a visiting fellow at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy, wrote of attending a government event in Beijing last November at which executives from 20 Chinese Internet companies were awarded the 2009 China Internet Self-Discipline Award for censoring themselves in the interest of “harmonious and healthy Internet development.” “China can use offline methods of control,” says Roberts. “At the end of the day, it is more effective to send government agents to people’s doors than to filter the Net.”
Ninety-five percent of its traffic goes to Chinese sites, which are subject to growing censorship.
China’s users filter themselves, too. The Tianya.cn bulletin board, with more than 35 million members, manages a kind of wiki-style self-censorship. Posts are ruled on by communities of “board masters” (ordinary users elected by other
Hear more from Google at EmTech 2014.