China’s newest export: Internet censorship

By David Rohde
November 17, 2011
BEIJING — This great city is the epicenter of a geopolitical battle over cyberspace, who controls it, and who defines its rights and freedoms. China’s 485 million web users are the world’s largest online population. And the Chinese government has developed the world’s most advanced Internet censorship and surveillance system to police their activity. 

Yet the days of Americans piously condemning China’s “Great Firewall” and hoping for a technological silver bullet that would pierce it are over. China’s system is a potent, vast and sophisticated network of computer, legal and human censorship. The Chinese model is spreading to other authoritarian regimes. And governments worldwide, including the United States, are aggressively trying to legislate the Internet.

“There is a growing trend toward Internet censorship in a range of countries,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, a prominent online democracy advocate and author of the forthcoming book “Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom.” “The same technology that helps secure your network from attack, that actually enables you to censor your network also.”

The problem is not software or hardware developed in a secret Chinese government laboratory. Recent news reports have uncovered American and European companies selling surveillance technologies to Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Thailand and other governments that block the web and brutally suppress dissent.

While the Egyptian government’s attempt to shut down the Internet during the Tahrir Square protests drew headlines, western governments are increasingly using the web for law enforcement surveillance. In a biannual transparency report released earlier this month, Google reported a 70 percent increase in requests for content removal or user information from the American government or police in the first half of 2011. Brazil filed the most requests, followed by Germany, the U.S. and South Korea, according to The Guardian.

Western companies are also under fire. Research in Motion, the Canadian firm that produces Blackberry smartphones, acceded to demands from The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and India for access to its users’ email messages. And the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet free speech group, has accused Cisco of selling surveillance equipment to the Chinese government that is used for human rights abuses.

A core problem is the pursuit of the almighty online dollar. An extraordinary story in The Guardian introduced readers to Jerry Lucas, the president of TeleStrategies, a Virginia company that organizes conferences around the world where firms sell surveillance and other technologies to governments. In an interview, Lucas said companies have no ethical obligation to determine if their products are being sold to regimes that will use them to suppress dissent.

“That’s just not my job to determine who’s a bad country and who’s a good country,” he told the reporter. “We’re a for-profit company. Our business is bringing governments together who want to buy this technology.”

Lucas argued that “99.9% good” comes out of the industry’s technology, which is primarily used to thwart online theft. That same argument is behind two misguided proposals in the U.S. Congress that MacKinnon warned this week in The New York Times would create “The Great Firewall of America.”

In an effort to stop online piracy, a House bill would hold Internet service providers responsible for copyright infringement. A who’s who of American industry is backing the bills, from U.S. Chambers of Commerce to the Motion Picture Association of America to the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. But the legislation is far too broad and will unintentionally bring elements of China’s censorship regime to the United States.

A requirement in the proposal that American Internet providers police their users mirrors China’s system of corporate “self discipline.” Here in Beijing, companies are required to report banned online speech to the government.

A morning coffee with a prominent Chinese blogger brought to life the success of the Chinese model and the chilling intersection of modern communication and surveillance. The blogger, who asked not to be named, said the Chinese government’s “Great Firewall” is succeeding. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are banned in China, but the government allows the Chinese computer firm Sina Weibo to operate microblogs that are the mirror image of Twitter.

Sina Weibo’s CEO, in an interview with Forbes Asia, said the company has as many as 100 employees working 24 hours a day to track and block user content, in order to avoid running afoul of the government.

The blogger said that basing the servers in China made it possible for the Chinese government to allow microblogging but maintain control. “Put the server in your hands, the data in your hands,” he said. “The people are happy but they don’t overthrow you.”

He said that when he blogs in English, electronic and human censors largely ignore his work. When he expresses dissent in Chinese, the content is blocked by programs that search the web for banned terms, such as “Tiananmen Square,” “Tibet,” or “Falun Gong.”

“They just stop the topic,” the blogger said. “They have good search engines for the different topics.”

Young Chinese revel in online social networks, according to the blogger. The government has successfully found a sweet spot where it provides a growing economy, western consumerism and limited online access.

“The Internet changed the mindset of this generation but it’s incremental and very slow,” the blogger said. “The only thing that can change China very quickly is a financial crisis.”

And in a sign of the model’s success, many Chinese bloggers and journalists do not raise sensitive topics online. Asked if he tried to hide his true identity when he was online, the blogger laughed.

“We don’t hide,” he said. “We use self-censorship.”

Last month, China, Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan submitted a resolution to the U.N. General Assembly that would give individual states the right to control the Internet. The United States, which would lose its position as the de facto controller of the web, opposes the measure, along with other Western countries. Advocacy groups that argue for full online freedom believe it is vital to push back now against such encroachments.

The Internet is the most revolutionary communications device of our lifetime. It is also a devastatingly effective surveillance tool. MacKinnon and other advocates are right. Congress and American companies should work to dismantle China’s Orwellian model, not replicate it.

Photo: Chinese artist and film-maker Zhang Bingjian pauses while holding a frame for disgraced official Wan Ruizhong, Party Secretary of Nandan County, whose portrait photography cannot been found from the Internet, as he stands in front of other portraits for his “Hall of Fame” project in a studio in Beijing April 22, 2011. The stark, monochromatic portraits rendered in the reddish-pink hue of China’s 100 yuan banknotes, painted by a team of artists in Shenzhen’s Dafen village — known for its mass-produced knock-offs of iconic Western paintings — are the brainchild of outspoken Zhang. REUTERS/Jason Lee

21 comments

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[...] Another piece from David Rohde, who posts about a deeply worrying trend: China’s system is a potent, vast and sophisticated network of computer, legal and human censorship. The Chinese model is spreading to other authoritarian regimes. And governments worldwide, including the United States, are aggressively trying to legislate the Internet. [...]

internet censorship as in India, China etc… can only in the long term produce social unrest; constructing social unrest should now be seen as a human right abuse issue by the international community;

Posted by Paats-W. | Report as abusive

Sorry – I keep thinking the headline should reflect content. The article is much better than the kneejerk politics that produced the headline.

Posted by Eideard | Report as abusive

This has only been possible because of CISCO in the US. They have supplied most of the hardware and training and still do. I’ve talked to many of the engineers working for the Chinese ISP’s and also government official friends who said that without CISCO they would basically still be in the internet stone-age.

Posted by ChinaManager | Report as abusive

The internet is a two edged sword. It provides openness and access to a wealth of information, but it also provides access to a lot of disinformation and more con games than I ever imagined. It is a pity there isn’t the equivalent of protections against fraud that protects the integrity of the mail. The spam filters seem to be dealing with that except for several fraudulent online educational opportunities. I wouldn’t dare send any of them the 10s of thousands of dollars they want for the degrees they claim to peddle. I suspect there is a big swindle going on with the business of at-home online education.

The Chinese are clumsy in some ways. They could flood the Internet with false history and fake news. They could just as easily provide official (or a host of fake “popular”) websites with their version of the facts about Falun Gong, Tiananmen, or Tibet. There are many who suspect their official history (and not just in China) is already more or a work of art than any individual would actually remember.

Writing history, in fact attempting to record any “facts” at all, is a form of artwork after all. It’s rather like money in a way. Credibility relies entirely on the gullibility and the outlook of the consumer of information.

The “truth” about anything lives on a very slippery slope and thinking for long or critically or in depth, tends to dissolve it as quickly as it finds more facts.

The Chinese are fools for censorship. They still think of the Internet as a form of print media. They don’t realize that information in the Internet age is as cheap as dirt and very easy to be blown around by the prevailing winds.

Many governments are afraid of it (any maybe rightly so) because they know it can make any official message irrelevant. Fortunes are spent to carefully craft political images and they can be destroyed overnight with popular attitudes and popular media. It can’t be dominated or bought off quite as easily by the powers that be as the older print media could – so far anyway (I think). .

People can now live in their own customized news universes. It can make the news, or anything people tend to think is the news of record, irrelevant. Cable news is already so very biased with it’s own target market groups. But that is so like so many of the practices of government itself you could say that government – which can lie through it agencies and even to itself, has found it’s match in the Internet.

The Internet could be the ultimate and very real “Tower of Babble” and it need not be accountable for much of anything it disseminates.

“It knows when you are sleeping. It knows when you’re awake, so be good for goodness sake”, or at least find a plausible excuse for whatever you are doing. The government, or popular opinion, might change its mind and all the definitions.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

Some say that it was the old FAX technology, allowing Polish, East German and even Soviet dissidents to communicate that destroyed the Soviet Union. Obviously, governments around the world, not merely China, have taken this lesson to heart.

Posted by ChrisHerz | Report as abusive

Who has the right to tell you what you can or cannot say, so long as you are not causing physical harm to others. Not any government or governing body, anymore than the Joe next door. Inevitably, all people want freedom of speech, even those suppressed by authoritarian regimes. Simply put, you cannot stop the inevitable from happening so better to embrace it than resist it. The authoritarian regimes are scared because the internet is a dangerous tool that could spark rebellion in their fragile countries and it could bring down governments. Any effort to suppress freedom of speech on-line is just an effort to retain power through control and nothing more.

Posted by somethingtosay | Report as abusive

@oneofthesheep

No need to insult others. I happen to agree with many of paintcan’s points.

Posted by somethingtosay | Report as abusive

[...] Reuters-China’s newest export: Internet censorship | David Rohde – doesn't really get into the possibility that China has already developed all the software and hardware necessary to run the great firewall and are actually now exporting their indigenous solutions [...]

@somethingtosay

I agree with @OneOfTheSheep’s explanation of the truth – in that “‘Truth’ is a foundation of bedrock, consistent from day to day,” and that “Information is either correct (absolute truth), incorrect (absolute falsehood) or somewhere in between” – no “if,” “and” or “buts.”

While reading @paintcan’s comment, it is difficult to understand the purpose of his comment, unless he had no purpose, or perhaps he had racing thoughts and utilized posting his comment as a way to set them free. Regardless, and I could agree with you, however, that I would hate to get on @OneOfTheSheep’s bad side (or be delivered a scathing lecture) and he could have been less harsh, but the way I see it is that it may have been a sobering experience which could be a good thing.

Posted by johnhuetteman | Report as abusive

The article is interesting but the title is misleading. While the article writes about the western world implementing internet censorship, the title writes a China blame-game.

Posted by Qeds | Report as abusive

What has China got to do with it?

Posted by greenacres | Report as abusive

From the Western point it is a clash of parties: impetus for profit without any consideration, and balancing it with social values.. From authoritarian side, it is the defeating of Western democracy with its capitalist fundamental of profit..

Posted by hallofids | Report as abusive

It’s my hobby – there are no recognizable rules for posting comments. There is no apparent etiquette. There are many repeat offenders.

I consider my comments creative writing exercises and am surprised people read them. I’m also remote from more active population centers. It’s a hobby.

I think it is obvious that I don’t think censorship is acceptable but I also think the information age brings its own curse. It is shocking to me to hear people 30 years younger speaking a patois I can’t understand. Although they are talking in English and saying things with very common words, they are so disconnected with how I’ve been speaking all my life that I have no idea sometimes what they are talking about. They not only have to adjust their vocabulary but the syntax to talk to me. It is part technical and part cultural vocabulary and impossible for me to understand. I imagine their children will be less understandable to me in another decade, and it does not seem to be due to my own decay but the fact that their lives and environment are so different from anything I ever knew. People are so enormously programmed by popular media, they may not recognize how the “facts” of their world are so very different from mine. We actually live in two different informational worlds and theirs is far more electronically connected. I don’t even get normal digital TV and seldom listen to the radio.

I realize this is not a direct comment on censorship but just a glimpse of the potential changes the language itself may undergo in a far shorter time than it ever happened in the past.

Oneofthesheep (definitely a wolf in sheep’s clothing) has criticized me before and he doesn’t bother me severely. I know I don’t like the SOB. I think he’s a smug, condescending bastard. He despises “inferiors”. He has said that he thinks most of the developing world is filled with inferior beings. Whatever truth he thinks he holds in self-serving, self-inflating and dangerous. I’m sure his core values are more evident to him than they are to readers and that he is a legend in his own mind. He obviously has a huge sense of entitlement. The most dangerous people in the world are always those who think they know the truth. Defining THE TRUTH is the big hurdle. I tend to default to the few physical or scientific principals I understand. But to be sure, depth of knowledge is better than breadth. Most people in social situations aren’t interested in depth but I am frequently reminded that I am too serious or too “deep”. It has very limited practical application outside the field that wants the depth.

The world is stuffed with people like him. They will kill each other off and take a lot of others with them. He seems to have a huge appetite for war. But I think he’s too old to go himself, if he ever did? And the “truth” he thinks he understands doesn’t get any clearer for all the dust the commotion raises. The last ten years has been the ruthless forcing of core beliefs and the fear of forced conversion on all sides. There is a core religious attitude in my attitude. But it isn’t likely to satisfy the doctrinaire.

Oneofthesheep’s truth’s will take a lot of captives (If he could make a living out of them) and leave a lot of corpses. He knows it’s good for business or seems to want to believe it is. And he’s the kind of man who doesn’t care how many victims he creates as long as his precious hide is intact. Read some of his other comments.

What I also suspect about OOTS is that he is gung how for support for his dreams of aggression or victory but would be very stinting about the rewards for participation. He would certainly want to control the distribution. He would be a USER and most certainly an exploiter.

He says he sold hospital equipment to the Shah of Iran. I have been an Architectural Model maker for the last 30 years and have degrees in architecture. He had bigger customers and made a hell of a lot more money most likely. But it burns my biscuits to think a guy like him thinks someone like me is expendable.

@johnhuetteman – what was the point of your comment? What did it have to do about censorship?

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

Sorry, but the cat is already out of the bag.

With the advent of peer-to-peer networks, someone trying to censor the whole internet would be like trying to take some pee out of a swimming pool. You have to pull the plug and drain the whole thing.

As OneOfTheSheep said, truth is a constant that never changes, which means it’s timeless, so it doesn’t matter what “vehicle” is used to communicate it.

Thanks to the internet, there are now more people than ever before who are awake, and armed with the truth, and are now taking it to the streets.

So again, the proverbial cat (truth) is already out of the bag.

Posted by gruven137 | Report as abusive

Perhaps this is analogizing too far, but the discourse between paintcan and oneofthesheep is interesting in light of the topic of censorship.

While doubtless your philosophies are more expansive and nuanced than my interpretation of them, I have to shrink them down somewhat to make my point.

OOTS seems to advocate only the expression of “truth.” Fully-formed and internally consistent observations are the ones worth sharing, for him.

For paintcan, this seems to be offensive to his decision regarding how he chooses to participate in the internet. Each have relevant objections.

The internet in its current form allows us and prompts us to choose our news sources. By tracking our information and displaying links that fit the algorithm of what we have observed in the past, or by returning to one or two sites where we frequently gather news, we can view one side of a dodecahedron, while in our ignorance we think we are viewing all the sides. I can offer few solutions to this, but OOTS’ approach is surely heavy-handed.

OOTS has a justifiable concern: the viewing of the half-finished ideas of others may lead us astray (sheep metaphor!) But he says paintcan, believes that his/her “own ignorant confusion [is] so worthwhile as to share it even if it is wrong.” If this is true of paintcan, the assertion that this is somehow worthy of social blame is absurd. If what OOTS says is true, what is the point of asking a question in school? What was the point of the first scientist observing phenomena and proclaiming “eureka!” prematurely?

My personal blind-spot that the internet allows me to develop further is a fondness for attempting to solve social problems through economics. One interesting observation is that in densely crowded cities, people are more “productive.” The things we make and do in urban environments have a higher value and we “do” more of them faster.

One hypothesis (OOTS, I apologize) is that this productivity happens because of the stimulation of an environment where artists and financiers (pardon the simplicity) interact, whether purposefully or not. Perhaps, contrary to OOTS’s assertion, half-baked ideas are precisely what encourage and stimulate productive human activity and technological growth.

Asking questions in an environment where the ideas that are closest to “truth” creates pressure to make better ideas. That the best ideas and comments are going to be given better recognition will also stimulate the sort of self-check that OOTS encourages: not asking your question or talking unless what you say has value.

The internet cannot exist without some form of censorship. Hear me out, before knee jerk reactions lead you astray: Google algorithms censor the internet. They lead you to a specific type of page. This is necessary. Otherwise, I would have to try random http entries, in the hope that I would stumble upon something. Google allows me to make an attempt at choosing my way in the internet, but it’s view of the “best” page for my search is still the “Google” view. “Censorship” must exist in some form for the internet to be useful.

But the censorship we largely have in America right now is one governed by “people.” Google’s algorithm doesn’t operate in a vacuum. Last I heard, one factor that determines whether page A is relevant is how many people insert a link to page-A into their webpage. Under these circumstances we have put our trust in the mob of humanity, to insert their hyperlinks to the “best” page.

From an economic analysis, this form of largely organic censorship seems preferable. To impose restrictions on what is currently the most accessible market-place of ideas and creativity will ultimately affect the content, value, and efficiency of the ideas and creativity.

From a personal standpoint, I don’t see how someone expressing a half-baked idea is wrong or harmful to me. I bet the average reader can tell within one to two sentences if a comment is worth reading. My initial interpretation of paintcan was that he was eloquent but fanciful. OOTS wrote well, but on review his forceful, one-sided characterization of paintcan’s post led me to mistrust his judgment.

I am currently in law school. A few of my friends are Chinese, and have completed post-high school education in the US. They are at times amazed and critical that our country is run by a “mob.” At times, I share their concern. But when I do feel concerned, this encourages me to speak my own perspective in the hopes of educating some, not to suppress the views of others.

Ironically, Chinese disrespect of American intellectual property rights is one of many sources of the SOPA/Protect IP legislation that would place the choice for censorship in the hands of the powerful. I prefer democracy, choice, and the “common law,” through which we enforce our rights against each other, when we so choose.

Apologies that I do not have time to prepare a more internally-cohesive observation . . . my time is limited.

Posted by odc | Report as abusive

The title is a sensationalistic misnomer and fuels blaming others (china) when others including ourselves are actually spontaneously and even exporting the technology, not the chinese. The chinese aren’t preaching their model to go elsewhere, and aren’t exporting the technique or the technology. Our own censorship is our own doing as is the desire and the technology and there’s no need to title this as china’s newest export.

Posted by mgunn | Report as abusive

Obviously…. As chinese citizens do we’ll simply reroute our IPs to use what we want anyway….

Posted by Haaaaaa | Report as abusive

Very well put @paintcan. Also a very good description of OOTS. I hope you two work it out though as I like to see his opinion too. I also believe the “truth” is in the eye of the beholder. Five people can stand right next to each other and watch a event happed, then five years later each one of them will have a different “truth” about what they saw and why. But that’s a whole other topic. This piece was on censorship.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

[...] Reuters-China’s newest export: Internet censorship | David Rohde – doesn’t really get into the possibility that China has already developed all the software and hardware necessary to run the great firewall and are actually now exporting their indigenous solutions [...]

“That’s just not my job to determine who’s a bad country and who’s a good country,” he told the reporter. “We’re a for-profit company. Our business is bringing governments together who want to buy this technology.”

Exactly the argument used by German companies who supplied the NAZI death camps during/after WW II. Was not their “job” to be concerned with how their products were used.

Posted by forzapista | Report as abusive

The U.S. should prohibit cyber-technology companies from developing or manufacturing products in China. China is using that technology to suppress its population, and to hack-attack the United States. We should also prohibit the exporting of surveillance technology and training to China and other authoritarian states.

Posted by SinoKat | Report as abusive

@odc,

I’m impressed! And I have to agree essentially with all that you say. My admittedly “harsh” response to paintcan arose out of the continuing clash between our fundamentally different perceived “realities”.

He and I have an obligation to remain more “on topic” in each thread and I shall strive to do better. Perhaps the problem is lack of respect. At seventy plus years I have come to see the world as terra firma…not entirely predictable, but mostly so.

Paintcan sees truth itself as having no identity or relevance over any other information. That makes a debate over values like debating jello because his positions seem those of one who cannot “see”, and his thought pattern as if darts thrown by one similarly sightless. I agree that this is quickly clear to the discerning reader, and my arguments are undoubtedly as mysterious to those whose mind and perspective parallel paintcan’s.

Your marvelous description of the “necessary” impersonal censorship by the “organic” algorithms of Google as helping the researcher in this country is obviously quite different from the reality of Google for the researcher in China. A good lesson for those in both countries. Thank you!

I shall endeavor to ignore paintcan henceforth except to such degree as he makes some point worth refuting. We all tend to think that a majority think as WE do, and I admit to a certain apprehension when I contemplate the possibility someday of a majority of “paintcan-mentality voters”. But maybe that’s what we already have…sigh.

I enjoyed and appreciate the clarity and depth of your comments, and hope you will be more active posting as time passes.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Here’s something more to the point. The Librarians of any municipal library are the censors and filters of their holdings and there is seldom any complaint from anyone that they exert quality control. They filter out fakes, scams, and garbage. Sometimes they can go too far and start filtering out books they find objectionable of that some patron may find objectionable. And they are very like ODC description of Google in that they will tend to stock the books most in demand. They always have limited shelf space.

Reuters allows users to report abuse, as you know. A few of my early posts were pulled and I never knew why. They weren’t obscene or off topic and didn’t violate their rules as far as I could tell. But someone may not have liked what I had to say. That was a form of petty, vote-of-one censorship, as far as I know.

Another thing Librarians can do – and I know this from personal experience – is to cull valuable or rare books when they notice them. I have seen this happen twice. Once at a university library where an antique copy of a famous French architectural book vanished and the librarian (the same man who was there when I first saw the set (with Louis XV’s imprimatur) swore he had never seen it. It happened again in the small town I live in now where a copy of “Twilight in the Forbidden City” by RF Johnston (the movie had come out) disappeared about a year after I first noticed it. The librarian also didn’t remember seeing it.

The Google search that ODC mentions – not the only search engine but the most aggressive (I am more or less self taught on the computer I have now and the Google search engine found me before I even knew it existed) always seems to find hundreds of thousands of entries. But years ago when I first got my computer, I once tried to see what pages hundreds of entries later actually contained. I found that most of them were repetitive of the first 10 to 20 pages of entries. In a way – it’s a waste of time to bother to list them. I also suspect that paid sites – or rather higher cost sites will get more traffic than less expensive web hosting sites.

When I listed my own website for my small business, I was asked to pay more for more aggressive placement. I declined because I didn’t understand much about the services and didn’t trust that the fee actually bought more exposure. A Google search couldn’t find the title pages of my web site even when I put every key word I had used for it. None of the search engines may be as immune to “bribery” as they seem. The marketing of net access is a black box to most users. The consumer of Internet content receives zero assurances about almost anything on it.

I also resent the way tool bars will attempt to take over my home page and I am not always adept at stopping them. They can be clever and sneaky. The Internet is somewhat hazardous. Pop up ads, spam, etc. can be dealt with and there are free anti-virus programs etc. that seem to work fine. I do everything I can with free-ware and seldom use paid for services or I wouldn’t bother with the machine at all. It could be come a very expensive appliance and so many of the protective services could be scams themselves.

There is a world of difference between quality control and censorship but the discussion is not making that distinction.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

[...] Censorship is not software that one writes and markets. It's much more complex than that. And the leader of internet censorship is none other than China. China’s newest export: Internet censorship | David Rohde [...]