Tuesday 25 March 2008

The Great Wall of China

The Great Fire Wall of China that is.

Meet China’s very cute “virtual police” who patrol the Internet to combat online pornography and other "illicit activity".

China has 30,000 virtual police and state owned Internet service providers who carry out online censorship in a way we could not even imagine. Their job is far more extensive than just censoring pornography.

In China, you are not allowed to look up bird flu on Google, search for an HIV AIDS support network on Facebook, search for religion on Wikipedia or access YouTube. Even trying to find this information could get you into trouble. Can you imagine?

And China, it seems, is far from the only country in which controlling information and opinion in cyberspace is pervasive. Based in Paris, where it's known as Reporters sans Frontieres, Reporters without Borders lists those nations considered to be among the worst "Internet enemies": Belarus, Burma, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.

Recent instances of online censorship in these countries include the total shutdown of the Internet in Burma during September's uprising to prevent dissidents from sending news to the outside world, Syria's block on Facebook in November and Iran's closure of 24 Internet cafes in December.

However, it is China that most often makes headlines for online censorship. The Chinese Government's latest attempt to control cyberspace was the January announcement that all video-sharing websites must have Government approval. Since February, only state-owned or controlled companies can gain a license to upload video content.

Because all ISPs in China are state-controlled and full identification must be shown at Internet cafes, those who try to look up blacklisted terms or websites can be identified. Access to those terms and sites fluctuate and the blacklist is not made public.

Since August last year there have been some cheerful little reminders about not looking at censored material: the cute animated "cybercops" shown above, trek across browsers every half hour. The official line is that it's to stop people looking at fraudulent or pornographic material but Amnesty International suggests "it's another reminder that the user is being monitored and they should be careful of all content they're looking at".

It is unlikely that the attention brought to Chinese censorship during August's Olympics will strike a fatal blow to the wall, as the government is expected to strategically relax Internet blocking in areas of Beijing frequented by foreign tourists and journalists during the games.

It surely is interesting.

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