Monday, 27 October 2008

Internet Censorship. The recurring nightmare for an expatriate Australian.

I've lived in China for almost a decade now, leaving Australia in 1999 I watched gymnastics, table tennis and the diving of the Sydney Olympics on television with a Chinese commentator. It was then that I first felt the first pang of home sickness.

Over the years I have learned to cope with being away from the sun through our hole in the Ozone, beaches with waves, people who look you in the eye and say “Good Morning” when you enter an elevator and generally better personal hygiene. Living in China though does have it's advantages. Cost of living is much lower. Personal income tax is marginally lower and in the little pockets of humanity in the bustling city of Shanghai one finds a wealth of humanity (albeit not as multicultural) that can only be offered from a city of twenty million people.

I am writing this post because through my twitter spy hole into the minds of Aussie geeks, there is much anguish about the move to censor the internet. I won't go into the politics of this as I really am out of touch with Australian politics. (you can read more about this on ) What I hope to achieve to provide a look into what it is like to live in a country that is renowned for their Great Firewall.

First of all, China is not a national democracy. There are actually elections for local municipal representatives but generally, most Chinese have no say in who is running their country. As a result, many policies are are made unilaterally and the decision to censor the internet was made by the Ministry of Information Industry (Now called the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology or MIIT) This ministry's role is not as innocuous as it sounds though. It is in charge of the telecommunications system and the internet but part of the role of this ministry is also public security and has under it's purview ensuring that state secrets don't get into the wrong hands. If you recall a crashed US surveillance plane in Hainan Island, these were the folk that dismantled it and reverse engineered the technology before returning the plane to the US in small pieces.

The rationale behind the control of information on the internet (and everywhere else for that matter) in China is to prevent revolt as much as moral inappropriateness. You can look up articles on what is blocked in China but many personal blogs hosted outside of China certain keywords fall into the list of blocked sites. I will avoid using those keywords in this article but suffice to say they refer to certain historical events, certain religious organisations and certain regions within or near China. Of course most pornographic sites are also blocked.

Over the years the system has gotten more sophisticated and it is only this year that Wikipedia was unblocked. Wikipedia is edited by the public and as such certain historical accounts might be written in such a way that is not pro-China. Now the capability has been developed to only block certain pages and not an entire site. In fact a while a go the practice was to block entire IP ranges, the same way that some spam blocker like to block all emails that come from a particular country. My point is that over the years, internet blocking has transformed from a blunt instrument to quite a sharp one, although I admit it is more like a butter knife than a scalpel.

How do they achieve this. It is rumoured that a staff of 30,000 are employed by the Golden Shield Project (the official name for the Great Firewall) to select what to block along with whatever algorithm they use to automatically block sites. I suspect that there are more people working on behalf of the censors if you include people who have been forced to self regulate their sites to keep them from being shut down within China. This goes as far as to block certain posts on bulletin boards to prevent discussions of events. If you click here you will see an article that refers to a bulletin post that was deleted due to inappropriateness. This is not uncommon.

So censoring the internet is not a small task of flicking a switch because internet savvy people are generally savvy and if you are going to make it effective then you'd better be ready to commit to it for the long haul. It will cost not only money, but people. Not just your average smart person but folk who can outsmart those who make money from those kiddy porn sites that I imagine Stephen Conroy wants to target. China churns out 40,000 technical graduates a year. They are underpaid, underemployed and it is these people that are probably responsible for the US accusation that China hacked the Pentagon systems. My point is if you are going to censor the internet, you're going to need a huge pool of extremely talented technologists to keep it going because those sites that really want to get through the firewall, will get through.

The situation in China is one of acceptance and if you really want to access a site there are simple ways around it. For instance Google Reader is not blocked in China so if certain blogs are blocked then you need only subscribe to them in via an RSS feed and then you can read them. Once again I won't go into much more detail about other ways to get around the GFW in case I am lucky to have one of the 30,000 Golden Shield staff read my blog. So as much as the GFW is an inconvenience, if people really want to get to certain content, there are many ways to get to it and by censoring the internet it is really only going to prevent those who are casual internet users from finding a loophole.

Censoring the internet is not only costly but it doesn't really work. It is a blunt instrument unless you plan to invest a huge amount of resources and man hours into it and unless there is a payoff for you to make that investment, (which for China is political and social stability of 1.5 billion people) it is a strategy that is extremely difficult to justify. If Australia is serious about censorship then there are some things they have to get right first.

  1. Make sure that you have enough technical graduates to support such a strategy.

  2. Give back to the people you're are censoring by making broadband access extremely affordable. (In China it costs AUD20 per month for a 1Gig unlimited access line)

  3. Understand that for a nation of only 20 million, a unilateral infringement on the basic freedoms of speech and freedoms of press is probably not better than a targetted and widespread campaign to encourage self regulation.

With that in mind, I wish my fellow Australian good luck as you battle the forces of technological oppression.

P.S. If you want to see some of what is blocked in China to a twitter search for gfwlist


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your very thoughtful and informative post. I suspect that for the majority of Australians the whole issue is going to be largely ignored and that the Minister - whose career path includes being a Right action boss of the ALP in Victoria is assuming the rest of us won't get the numbers to sway him from his chosen path.

Anonymous said...

my comment just now should have read "Right faction boss"

Anonymous said...

Nice article. Thanks! If only everyone saw it so reasonably!

Anonymous said...

Agree with your take on this. I also think things are opening up more lately though, your thoughts? Still very common for wordpress, blogger, youtube, many many other things to be blocked, but I do see the Great Firewall easing and opening lately.