Friday, 16 March 2007

Internet censorship: China

I heard about Wang Xiaoning's plight and his wife Yu Ling's struggle for his freedom through Luke O'Brien's article, "Yahoo betrayed my husband", on Wired News.
Yu's husband is now in Beijing Prison No. 2, serving a 10-year sentence for inciting subversion with his pro-democracy internet writings. According to the written court verdict, the Chinese government convicted Wang, in part, on evidence provided by Yahoo....

It's also a trade-off that Yahoo is not alone in making. To comply with government requirements, Google's China search engine blocks access to sites the government deems objectionable. Microsoft launched its Chinese blogging service in 2005 with filters that prohibited sensitive words such as freedom and democracy in blog titles. And Cisco supplies internet backbone equipment the Chinese government uses in the so-called Great Firewall that shields citizens from websites about Tibet and the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Technology firms are "compromising their duties as responsible corporate citizens," Rep. Chris Smith (R-New Jersey) charged in a blistering opening statement during congressional hearings on the issue last year. "Women and men are going to the gulag and being tortured as a direct result of information handed over to Chinese officials."
On the next page, Wired News noted that,
In his e-journals, Wang called socialism a "totalitarian and despotic political system," and wrote that the Chinese government was "outwardly democratic but inwardly despotic."
So offended was the Chinese government by this outrageous libel... that it imprisoned him... then denied his appeal...

In the Guardian's Comment is Free (CiF) pages, Martin Wray argued that,
Internet companies are supposed to be on the right side of the argument, not act just like every other branch of big business. Learning that Microsoft agreed to cut off China's most famous blogger, Zhao Jing, even though the posts the Chinese government objected to were located on servers in the US, raised many eyebrows but not so many hackles on the internet. Microsoft is driven by the profit motive.

But discovering that a search for Tiananmen Square on Google's Chinese search engine produces pictures of happy smiling couples having their photos taken in the square and no hint of the violent repression of June 4, 1989, is just plain wrong.
That much is true; it is "just plain wrong". As one of Wray's commentators, Anyu, observed, however, "human ingenuity seems to be able to get round that in many cases". There are ways to clamber over, tunnel under or simply walk straight through the Great Firewall of China.

As Maggie Farley pointed out in the Los Angeles Times,
just as the miles of mud and stone erected centuries ago failed to keep China's citizens in and invaders out, this cyber-barrier is being breached by a new generation of computer experts.

They call themselves "hacktivists," electronic guerrillas with political agendas ranging from ending censorship to outright sabotage....

"We are destined to destroy the Chinese system of censorship over the Internet," declared the editor. "We believe that the Chinese people, like any other people in the world, deserve the rights of knowledge and free expression."....

"'Hacktivism' forges conscience with technology and girds us against the disagreeable nature of conflict," said a hacker who identifies himself as "Oxblood Ruffin," a former U.N. consultant who now is known as foreign minister of the Cult of the Dead Cow."
You can "use Google's translator to access sites blocked over firewall" (but don't bother reading the vapid comments that follow Max's explanation).

(Via Hacktivismo via Slashdot via Bruce Schneier) Bruce Clayton has even come up with a way of "ignoring the 'Great Firewall of China'", which he brands "the Harry Potter approach to the Great Firewall - just shut your eyes and walk onto Platform 9[&]3/4" (though I confess I couldn't understand how to achieve it; maybe I just didn't believe in it sufficiently).

The Great Firewall of China site, which I saw in Dan Morrill's ITtoolbox, gives references for a few technical or technological means for scaling its namesake, but also observes that there are ways of talking past the wall:
The Chinese are very resourceful in this. A site about popular movie stars may become a vehicle for discussing delicate political issues. Among Chinese ‘nerds’ hacking systems are circulating that completely bypass censorship, but you must be knowledgeable enough to download these from non-blocked sites. And then there are weblogs that appear to discuss dogs but are in fact describing the political situation in China.
I'm honoured. Using the test site, I've learned that the Great Firewall of China blocks my own research blog, human rights archaeology, as well as some of the cultural heritage and community site blogs, like those for Gracanica and Mitrovice and personal pages about accessible art and palimpsests!

None of this post defends what Yahoo did to Wang Xiaoning: I agree with Smith that they are "compromising their duties as responsible corporate citizens". I would venture, however, that, despite how it could give the impression of Chinese government victory and others' consent to censorship (and despite the fact that, to a certain extent, it is these things), cooperation on providing limited access to information could be defended.

This may sound like too fine a distinction, but I would draw a tentative line between cooperating to provide limited access to information and cooperating to provide access to limited information; I think I see a line between helping to limit someone's ability to acquire knowledge and helping to limit their ability to produce knowledge, but only if, when and because it is possible to break through those limits to access of information. If people couldn't hack their way through, I wouldn't accept it.

Without these search engines, materials would be inaccessible; but, with them, exactly and only because they are so easily hacked and their true wealth of information so easily accessed, they still serve to enable freedom of information and may still serve to facilitate freedom of expression. Even if it can't be smashed, internet censorship in China can be circumvented.

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