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China’s Great Firewall: Web is Used as a Weapon by Authorities

Posted by Author on March 11, 2007

Rowan Callick, theaustralian, March 12, 2007-

An internet search can lead to jail in China, where the web is used as a weapon by authorities. Sites are blocked, emails monitored and all users registered. Rowan Callick investigates.

A US businessman negotiating in Beijing with a large state-owned Chinese company was startled to discover that the morning after he sent an email back to head office about a certain issue, his counterpart opened their discussion with that same topic. This happened day after day, and he was convinced that his emails were being intercepted and passed on.

It shows that while China is building a relentless case that it is the rising global superpower of the 21st century, progress is being deliberately constrained within that most 21st century of institutions, the internet.

A more sinister case emerged last week when the wife of a Chinese dissident jailed for publishing articles on the internet announced plans to sue US-based internet company Yahoo for allegedly helping to put her husband in jail in China. After arriving in Washington last week, Yu Ling said Chinese police arrested her husband, Wang Xiaoning, partly because Yahoo’s Hong Kong office gave Chinese authorities information about his email accounts. Paris-based Reporters Without Borders says China has imprisoned at least 50 individuals, including Wang, for their activities on the internet.

Armed with a survey that states one in seven teenagers is in danger of internet addiction, China has launched a nationwide campaign against the threat posed by online games and is funding a network of rehabilitation clinics for internet addicts.

This continues the Government’s determination that even the world wide web will be adapted to conform to its control. “The Government should play a guiding role in progress. Some enterprises will take advantage of any loopholes,” Kou Xiaowei, deputy director of the audiovisual and internet publication department of the General Administration of Press and Publication, told People’s Daily newspaper.

The speed of the internet in China is sometimes glacial and access is restricted by a secret army of “net police” whose numbers are said to have swollen to 40,000.

The internet in China suffered a setback when a Boxing Day earthquake (7.1 on the Richter scale) 15km south of Taiwan caused 20 crucial fibre-optic cables, 3km under the sea, to snap, triggering a crash of communications across the Asian region, since most of its infrastructure takes that route to the US, the chief global online hub.

This underlined the frustration felt in China by businesses and individuals whose livelihoods depend on fast and reliable international internet connections.

It also reinforced the natural response of Chinese internet users to shift from overseas sites to the increasingly crowded ranks of Chinese copycats, which are much faster and easier to use than their foreign competitors.

China now has 137 million internet users, 91million have broadband and 17 million have wireless access. This is the second biggest group of netizens in the world after the US.

But after the earthquake, business on China Netcom, the country’s second biggest telecommunications corporation – all such companies are government-owned – collapsed to 20 per cent of normal levels.

Sina.com, one of the country’s dominant websites, said 97 per cent of its users reported difficulties in accessing overseas sites after the quake and 57 per cent said their lives and work had been seriously affected.

During this five-week downtime or slow-slowtime, clicking on a local site, especially one operated by a government-controlled company or agency, was akin to a driver being ushered by the police on to a freed-up, dedicated overtaking lane during a typical Chinese city traffic jam.

There are few engineers capable of finding – through grappling hooks – then fixing such broken cables, each less than 20mm in diameter. The cable companies also needed submarine robots – costing $5 million a time – to rebury them after they had been repaired by hand.

Until the end of January, 11 ships were anchored above the cables, in often heaving, wintry seas, demonstrating that cybercommunications remains at times dependent on the collaboration of very traditional forms of communication and transport.

But fixing the cables didn’t fix the problem in China. There are just five locations in China through which all international internet links must pass: Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Tianjin and Qingdao. The gatekeepers are the internet service providers, which have been appointed as deputies by the net police and are expected, and required, to sift through all traffic, including emails, to prevent subversive and “vulgar” content circulating in China.

President Hu Jintao recently told a meeting of China’s 24-person politburo that the Communist Party had to “strengthen administration and development of our country’s internet culture, maintain the initiative in the expression of opinion on the internet and raise the level of guidance online. We must promote the civilised running and use of the internet and purify the internet environment.”

Users of internet cafes must register their names and identity card numbers before they can go online, even to play games. And the Government is moving to require ISPs to obtain the true names and details of all 18million bloggers, even if they invent blog names.

For all the huffing and puffing of China’s imperial-style censors and controllers, alert and nimble-minded people – who are to be found in disproportionate numbers among the netizen population – will always find a way around. But only a tiny number will ever take the time, effort, expense and trouble to traduce the Communist Party.

Andrew Lih, a former academic at Columbia and Hong Kong universities, a former software engineer and a leading commentator on China’s media ecology, says: “Censorship is always a cat-and-mouse game, but in this case the mouse doesn’t have as many resources as the cat.”

In China, he points out, the router that steers packets of online data is also the censor. Very neat. And routers made by US company Cisco “are at the heart of this operation”.

Internet users receive no message explaining that a site or a particular piece of data they wish to view is blocked, let alone why. Usually the screen merely registers a technical error with a phrase such as “connection reset”, or says merely that the site, or the data, is unavailable at present, so it is impossible to tell if it is intentional.

Then a time-out follows, so it usually takes several minutes before the user is able to gain access to the site again, especially frustrating if it is a search engine such as Google.

The term most often used for this structure is the Great Firewall of China. Lih says “It’s a cute moniker, but not a great metaphor”, because it is essentially a filter, not a barrier that would suggest it is as easily skipped around as the real Great Wall was, by successions of invading hordes from the north.

The metaphor also suggests the Great Firewall is only aimed at keeping out messages from or about forbidden groups or topics, chiefly the Five Poisons: Taiwan, the independence movements of Tibet and of the Muslim Uighurs of Xinjiang, the democracy movement and, of course, Falun Gong.

But the net police are also very active in “purifying” the domestic web, too, including through filters that automatically block messages or data packages containing certain words. Lih says: “If you want a licence to operate as an internet service provider, then there are certain things you must do. If the Government observes then declares that your filtering is inadequate, your licence is in jeopardy.”

On the other hand, since there has never been an acknowledgment that the Great Firewall exists, it is awkward for the Government to punish people who seek ways around it.

A diplomat with China’s mission in Geneva, Yang Xiokun, told a UN internet governance forum there last year: “We don’t have software blocking internet sites. I’m not sure why people say these things. We do not have restrictions at all.”

Such statements ensure there can be no public debate in China on the issue, or outside, with Chinese representatives. The issue becomes instead a matter of assertion and counter-assertion.

Western and chiefly American internet corporations know how real the filtering is. Yet if they are to gain access to the Chinese market, they must behave as Chinese internet firms do, including filtering unacceptable information at the country’s five “choke points” of international routing.

This has damaged the reputation of companies such as Yahoo and Microsoft. Google co-founder Sergey Brin admits the company’s acceptance of filtering of its search engine in China was “on a business level, that decision to censor was a net negative”.

Some Western companies have gone further and provided Chinese authorities with elements of the technology they use to exert their control; for instance, through software that reveals the location of users.

Besides acquiring help from the US in refining its scrutiny expertise, China has poured considerable resources into innovation in this area in which, alone, it can claim to lead the tech world, but in a manner that remains a closely and successfully guarded secret.

The access that Western internet giants have gained to the Chinese market has not yet done them a lot of good. Chinese rivals were mostly set up as straight copycats but are more closely attuned to domestic interests and are not only in the lead but are gaining market share. They include Google’s rival Baidu, Yahoo’s rival Sohu, eBay’s rival Alibaba, and MSN’s rival, qqonline.

Wikipedia has a Chinese version, allwiki, and the English-language original is unobtainable in China because of its uncompromising entries on issues such as the June 1989 massacre in Beijing. As a result, it is impossible to access Wikipedia at all. The entry on kangaroos always draws the same response: “The page you are looking for is currently unavailable.”

The BBC website is also blocked, for reasons that remain clouded. Lih says that denying all access to such sites is a comparatively blunt operation. “But keyword filtering is very sophisticated. It is an automated process, but with human minders. And there is good evidence that the keywords are always changing according to news events. We don’t know a lot more than that, though we’re looking at shadows.”

Even more complex, he says, is the system through which users are sometimes automatically redirected from blocked overseas sites to approved pure domestic alternatives. “You’d have to have pretty good guanxi (connections)” to benefit from this process, Lih says.

There are other beneficiaries. Filtering through keywords can also allow scrutineers to obtain strategic information while permitting the message to pass.

Encryption may be one partial protection against filtering for it cannot be banned altogether since banks and other key institutions require it. But regulations are in place that theoretically greatly restrict its use.

One of the routine downsides of this operation is that even for people who would not dream of typing in the name of a pernicious cult, the whole system is being slowed by the filtering process. Even with broadband and wi-fi, you may as well make a cup of tea while you wait for an utterly uncontentious site to appear.

If there’s another earthquake off Taiwan during the Beijing Olympic Games next year, the foreign media will become more of a threat to public order than the Five Poisons.

Rowan Callick is The Australian’s China correspondent.

original report from  The Australian

2 Responses to “China’s Great Firewall: Web is Used as a Weapon by Authorities”

  1. Lawrence said

    Sorry…
    http://www.fofg.org/news/news_story.php?doc_id=1360
    Now it fits :P

  2. Lawrence said

    Isn’t that from another article from another source?
    At least part of it is recognised from here:
    http://www.fofg.org/news/news_story.php?doc_id=1360&PHPSESSID=48817ebd10d9fbafeb71987f63a54e7e

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