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.