As the Great Firewall falls, censorship increases in China

For my internship at Berkman I’m doing a bunch of research into internet filtering in China. I’m looking into media regulation, internet infrastructure, and legal/technical frameworks for censorship. Other smart people are running tests to actually get some hard data on what types of things are censored. This is difficult because what is typically referred to as the “Great Firewall of China” is not what actually exists. When China had limited access to the internet through a few links, it was easy to impose blocks on certain pages. But as internet usage in China has expanded drastically over the past few years, and total connectivity for that country has risen to almost 80 gigabits per second through nine seperate providers using dozens of connections to various countries, the idea of sifting through and blocking that amount of data in the middle of the network is an almost impossible task. Luckily, the fine internet police in China, assisted in no small part by American and European companies, has stepped in to fill the gaps and dramatically expand the censorship web.

As internet legal visionary Larry Lessig, among others, has said frequently, the beauty of the internet is that, unlike the original AT&T phone system, the network itself is “dumb,” and the “intelligence” comes at the ends. The internet infrastructure just passes along little packets of information from place to place. It is like a massive highway system. The intelligence of the network comes from the applications that communicate on top of it, the clients and servers doing things from the “ends” of the network to exchange information. China has realized this as well.

While it is possible to impose central blocks on web addresses, much more useful, from China’s point of view, and much more powerful is to have several layers of censorship. Since about 2001 internet cafes have been required to install blocking software locally and to record every user along with when they were there and what computer they were using. If a user visits a blocked page, their name, the date and time, and the page they were trying to visit are all sent to a local police bureau in charge of regulating the internet. Similarily, new “edge” routers which connect home and business internet users to internet service providers are powerful enough to track who (based on their IP address) is accessing what pages, and to run their connection through various content filters in real time. Some traditional ways of hiding dissident activity, such as using proxy servers or “spoofing” packets, is much more easily detected by the smart routers, made by American corporations, that sit between individual’s connections and the broader internet.

These new technologies make it easier to get caught, but they also have the effect of causing people to engage in self-censorship. You’ll be much more wary to click on a link if it might lead somewhere controversial or unsavory. In the same way, major internet companies in China have been “encouraged” to take public pledges to work to maintain the high standards of the Chinese internet. In practice this means Chinese search engines, news, and discussion sites have filtering and monitoring in place to remove unsavory information. This is more then just pornography, of course. It includes discussion of the Falun Gong religion, exposure of corruption in government, questions about secret arrests and jailings, foreign news, pro-democracy and pro-western viewpoints, etc. The list is long, and no one quite knows what is off limits — at least not until they get in trouble for breaking the unwritten rules.

Of course, Chinese censorship is not limited only to the internet. In order to have an effective police state, you need ubiquitous surveillance. Dossiers are kept on every citizen from birth onward. Teachers, among others, report on their activities, even as young as kindergarden. However, Chinese national identification cards are not very difficult to forge. Thus China is moving towards a new ID system that integrates a smart card (for storing lots of information) and a proximity sensor (for scanning from up to several feet away). The new cards, which will be very difficult, if not impossible to forge, will allow for even more day-to-day data collection and the ability to track people everywhere they go. New closed circuit video camera networks are being built in major cities using internet technologies to allow the images to be fed into servers, processed, and manipulated. Thus, as you might imagine, biometrics, such as facial recognition, are being integrated. With any luck, the cameras will be able to pick people out of crowds and track them. Why is this useful? Well, when the Tiananmen Square uprising took place, Chinese authorities played CCTV tapes on national television networks so that party loyalists could identify each and every protestor, so that everyone could be rounded up, jailed, tortured, or whatever seemed best.

Thanks to American and European companies, this type of surveillance is becoming easier, cheaper, and more ubiquitous. Chinese citizens have a lot to thank us for.

For more information about how American and European firms including Cisco, Nortel, 3Com, and others are helping China achieve its noble ends, see this report.