THE GREAT FIREWALL OF CHINA
THE GREAT FIREWALL OF CHINA
2006-01-20 at 10:19:00 am #13481
The Great Firewall of China
A vast security network and compliant multinationals keep the mainland’s Net under Beijing’s thumb.
technology may foil the censorship yet Skype had a dilemma. The
Internet telephony and messaging service wanted to enter China with TOM
Online , a Beijing company controlled by Hong Kong billionaire Li
Ka-shing. Li’s people told their Skype Technologies partners that, to
avoid problems with the Chinese leadership, they needed filters to
screen out words in text messages deemed offensive by Beijing. No
filtering, no service.
At first Skype executives resisted, says a
source familiar with the venture. But after it became clear that Skype
had no choice, the company relented: TOM and Skype now filter phrases
such as “Falun Gong” and “Dalai Lama.” Neither company would comment on
VAST MACHINE. It’s no secret that Western Internet
companies have to hew to the party line if they want to do business in
China. Google , Yahoo!, and scores of other outfits, both domestic and
foreign, have made concessions to China’s censors. The latest
high-profile example: In December, Microsoft’s MSN shut down a Chinese
blogger’s site at the government’s request.
Microsoft maintains it
had no choice. “We only remove content if the order comes from the
appropriate regulatory authority,” says Brooke Richardson, group
product manager for MSN.
Getting a phone call from the government is
one part of the picture. What few Westerners know is the size and scope
of China’s censorship machine and the process by which multinationals,
however reluctantly, censor themselves. Few also know that China’s
censors have kept up with changing technologies, from cell phone text
messaging to blogs.
EYES PEELING. How do the Chinese do it? Beijing
has a vast infrastructure of technology to keep an eye on any potential
online dissent. It also applies lots of human eyeballs to monitoring.
The agencies that watch over the Net employ more than 30,000 people to
prowl Web sites, blogs, and chat rooms on the lookout for offensive
content as well as scammers. In the U.S., by contrast, the entire CIA
employs an estimated 16,000 people.
Companies, both foreign and
domestic, also abet the government’s efforts. Virtually all Net outfits
on the mainland are given a confidential list of hundreds of banned
terms they have to watch for. The list changes over time, based on
events such as the recent police shootings in the southern town of
The rules are even tougher for companies that host their
sites on servers in China. This group, which has included Yahoo but not
Google, are pressured to sign the government’s “Public Pledge on
Self-Discipline for the Chinese Internet Industry,” the U.S. State
Dept. says. Under the agreement, they promise not to disseminate
information that “breaks laws or spreads superstition or obscenity,” or
that “may jeopardize state security and disrupt social stability.”
“If you own something, you’re responsible for what’s there,” says
Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong.
That leads companies to “err on the side of caution and
NO “FREEDOM.” For those who can’t see the
characters on the wall, Beijing has plenty of backup. All Internet
traffic entering or leaving China must pass through
government-controlled gateways — that is, banks of computers — where
e-mail and Web-site requests are monitored. E-mail with offending words
such as “Taiwan independence” or “democracy” can be pulled aside and
And when a mainland user tries to open a page that’s
blacklisted, the gateway will simply deny access. Search for “Tiananmen
Massacre” in China, for example, and 90 of the top 100 sites that
mention it are blocked, according to the OpenNet Initiative, an
Internet watchdog group. The Net operators’ response? “We are trying to
provide as much information as possible,” says Robin Li, chairman of
Baidu.com , China’s top search engine. “But we need to obey Chinese
The censors are also staying abreast of changes on the
Internet. Hackers in 2004 found a list of 987 words that were banned
from QQ, China’s top instant-messaging program. That same year, phone
companies were ordered to install software that blocks text messages
with offending terms. And bloggers are barred from posting words such
as “freedom” as topics, although they’re given a bit more leeway in the
actual text of their blog entries.
“WE DON’T TOUCH POLITICS.” Even
so, since last summer, bloggers have been required either to post their
musings on commercial sites that employ filters or to register with
authorities, making it easier to track down offenders.
restrictions have led many companies to make both subtle and
substantial changes to their operations on the mainland. The Shanghai
podcasting and video blogging service provider Toodou.com checks files
before they’re posted, and users sometimes report objectionable
content. And IDG Venture Technology Investment, part of Boston’s
International Data Group, has invested in a Chinese company that
operates online bulletin boards on real estate, entertainment,
technology, autos, and more. But “we don’t touch politics at all,” says
Quan Zhou, managing director of the group’s Chinese arm.
Internet gateways can cause problems even for those companies that
avoid controversial subjects. ILX Media Group, a Greensboro publisher
of four Chinese-language medical journals, transmits content from the
U.S. to China. But getting complex graphics through Beijing’s filters
can take days, says Jeffrey Parker, ILX’s chief operating officer in
Shanghai. “All traffic has to go through the same meat grinder,” says
Parker. Not that such policies deter investors. Parker, for instance,
says he’s upbeat about his prospects there.
KEEPING UP? Despite the
power and sophistication of China’s censors, the march of technology
may yet foil them. As more sites add podcasts and user-generated video,
China’s monitoring efforts will become far more complicated because
it’s harder to examine such material than it is to check text files.
do you filter when everybody has the capability to be their own video
blogger?” asks Ross O’Brien, managing director at Intercedent Hong
Kong, an IT consulting and research firm. But don’t underestimate
China’s ability to control the Net, just as it has done in the past.
Although the battle is far from over, the formula of getting companies
to do much of the fighting may keep on serving China well.