Thursday, July 31, 2008

on censorship

The home page of the NYTimes this morning features an article, "China to Limit Web Access During Olympic Games." The crux of the article is that, despite Beijing's promises to the contrary, reporters will not be given uncensored internet access during the Games. A BOCOG spokesperson claims that journalists will only have "convenient and sufficient" access.

Let me share a little background on China's internet censorship for those who have never experienced it. The best article I've read about it is James Fallow's Atlantic article, which is recommended if you want to know as much as anyone about how the Great Firewall (GFW) works and what the results are. For me personally, the GFW is a highly frustrating, ubiquitous part of life here in China; though there are ways around it, in my experience circumventing the GFW means slowing your net connection down to a crawl and even then never being certain that it will work.

One of the great and accurate points Fallows makes is that part of the power of China's censorship is that they don't tell you when a page is censored (vs. a server being down, or your internet connection being down). What this means is that if you get to a page that's blocked, you aren't going to dwell on the injustice of not being able to read whatever it is you wanted to read; rather, you are going to shrug and surf away to something else that's more convenient. By the time you wonder whether it was a technical error or a censorship issue, you've forgotten what it was you were looking for. I have had conversations with Chinese friends who believe that there is no censorship; they simply believe that the internet is unreliable.

The censorship affects me personally in many ways, and in fact I've even changed my surfing habits because of it (which is, of course, exactly what the Chinese government wants). Some examples:

- I will rarely click through to a Wikipedia link because it was blocked for so long here in China. It's accessible now, but my assumption is that it will be blocked again after the Games.

- Ditto for blogspot. Also accessible during the Games, but who knows afterwards (I presume I will have to move this blog, but we'll see).

- Google image search almost never works, presumably because it grabs content from a bunch of different sites, some of which may be on the watch list. With Google image search there is a really interesting phenomenon: the first time I search, it will load a few images, then suddenly revert to a "connection has been reset" page. At this point, I usually can't search anything on Google for a minute or so, then suddenly it works again. This is consistent with Fallows' research.

- Many sites with the word "blog" in them are blocked by default. E.g. CNN's politics blog, which I often click through to from CNN's home page, forgetting that I haven't been able to read it for more than a year.

- Of course, then you have all the obvious sensitive issues (I won't list them here).

One of the worst parts is the unpredictability. Not only is the GFW constantly changing, it is (apparently) managed by different teams in different places, meaning that what is blocked at work may not be blocked at home or at a local Wifi spot. Of course, then there's the paranoia of wondering if one day you will have searched something sensitive one too many times and will hear a knock on the door...

One more point I want to raise before closing. No Chinese person I know wants or likes the GFW. Those who know about it are frustrated by it and generally yearn for free access. However, two counterpoints must be raised here. First, I know many educated Chinese people who, though frustrated by the censorship, are quick to support a broad claim that with 1.3 billion people, you can't possibly give everyone access to everything without inducing social unrest, so you have to proceed with opening up cautiously and slowly (which they claim is happening).

Second, and I'll conclude with this, a recent Pew report indicates that 86% of Chinese people are satisfied with the direction of the country, and 82% think the economy is good. Think about those numbers for a moment. Due to such overwhelming support, many Chinese people seem more than willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt on most issues, including censorship.


John said...

Hey Vance!
This issue was on NBC Nightly News last night as a major story, which I was kind of shocked by (big coverage). Many of the reporters going to the Olympics have never been to China before, and then are so shocked when they can't access these sites but they were promised they could. It's called: "Welcome to China, the government can do whatever it wants!" I'm glad they got this wake up call and think they should stop whining and ask their companies to set up VPN's if its so important they access blogs about Tibet and wikipedia to report on the Olympics. The NBC news story showed the head of setting up a VPN and saying that the reporters were "whining". Haha.

Glad to see you're breathing an API of 30 over there!

Anonymous said...


Nice blog - I guess I'm the only kid on the block not to have one ;)

Big yes on all the frustrations you mention. I recently paid for a proxy which seems to get me through.

But, I went out of the country for 2 weeks, and just got back today and every search seems to be crawling. Don't know why. And, I did a search on a news story related to a communicable disease starting with a and ending with x and everything froze. Didn't matter if I went through Yahoo, Google, and even the new search engine Cuil. Strange -- I did the same search minus that one word and it was fine. Unfortunately, I searched this about half a dozen times before figuring it out so they probably have my number now...


Anonymous said...

Speaking of internet control, I thought you might be interested in this memo describing some of the reasons why the Chinese are comfortable with the idea of government control of the internet.


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