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September 1, 2004

'The Great Firewall of China'


That's the term being used by critics of China's internet policy.

Today's Wall Street Journal article by Charles Hutzler was of great interest to me, because it focused on the 20% of the world I was effectively shut out of with bookofjoe Version 1.0, as a result of the XXX-rated content that appeared daily.

There's an Arab proverb that goes, "One door closes, another opens."

That's precisely how I'm beginning to view the shift here to Version 2.0.

Because all of a sudden, not only does China open up to bookofjoe, but a number of other people who before, for any number of reasons, couldn't/wouldn't read bookofjoe are climbing on board.

My prediction, by the way, as to how much of my audience I'd retain after becoming G-rated was right on the money.

I suggested that I'd end up with 5% of my Version 1.0 audience, after the dust settled, some 1,100 readers: turns out that the number is 1,500 or so.

But that's fine, 'cause I love a challenge.

Those numbers are already climbing, and they'll keep on doing so. But I digress.

Hutzler's article points out that China is using a variety of defenses to restrict internet content.

1) Chinese police focus on the backbone networks that undergird the internet. They simply block I.P. addresses of objectionable web sites at the routers.

2) New filtering technology combs the web for objectionable words and phrases (a list of some of the more than 1,000 filtered ones appears at the end of this post)

Of interest: 15% of the banned terms are sexual, while the rest are political

Emails containing them get lost in cyberspace; search engine requests for these words and phrases go unanswered, without an error message being sent back

3) ISP companies themselves, afraid of running afoul of Chinese authorities and being shut down, do their own censoring

Google's cache feature has been disabled in China; Google says its been done by the Chinese, not them, and research by Jonathan Zittrain and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard confirms this.

Of course, Google was shut down by China two years ago, only to come back with its cache feature disabled.

Google denies doing a deal with the Chinese, but who really knows?

What I want is this: would a bookofjoe reader in China, just one joehead among you 1.3 billion people, be so kind as to email me or post a comment to let me know if I'm getting through in my new Disney World-compatible Version 2.0?

I'd be most appreciative.

Saudi Arabia, by the way, also vigorously polices the internet, but - unlike China - makes public its general criteria for banning internet sites.

I've had readers from Saudi Arabia even in the bad old days, so who knows what's going on there?

Probably people in the ministries chillin' on a hot day.

One other thought.

The Journal's story notes, in its final paragraph, that China's firewall is porous, and intentionally so.

China knows it must connect to the outside to flourish.

What the country's doing, rather, is making it "prohibitively difficult to access or disseminate objectionable content."

I'm reminded of one of my favorite stories, about film director Brian de Palma.

A reporter interviewing him noted that it was really hard to find his production studio and office: the facility was in a warehouse building in Santa Monica, California, without any address or name on it.

In addition, the company's phone number was unlisted.

"Why?" asked the reporter.

De Palma replied, "Anyone who really needs to find us, and should find us, somehow always does."

Here's the Wall Street Journal story.


China Finds New Ways To Restrict Access To the Internet

The phalanx of barriers China uses to block access to dissenting views on the Internet is growing in sophistication and reach, stretching from network nerve centers to home desktop computers.

China's Internet police are using a filtering technology to, in effect, disable a popular feature of the search engine Google, according to a team of researchers at Cambridge, Harvard and Toronto universities.

The feature taps into snapshots of Web pages stored on Google's servers - which are based outside China - and was once a common way for Chinese to view sites that were otherwise blocked.

Separately, a research project at the University of California, Berkeley, found a list of banned words and phrases that a Chinese company embeds in desktop software to filter messaging among PCs and cellphones.

Among the more than 1,000 taboo terms: "democracy," "sex" and "Hu Jintao," China's president.

Added together, these reports are helping to flesh out the shape of what critics have dubbed "the Great Firewall of China" and show how successful China has been in bringing to heel the Internet, which was once championed abroad as an unruly marketplace of ideas that would promote free expression.

The communist government has jailed people for disseminating politically critical views, in part to serve as a warning to other Web users.

But it has never publicly disclosed its policing methods; the Ministry of Public Security, the agency in charge of supervising the Internet, said yesterday it couldn't comment on its monitoring and the assertions in the foreign research reports.

Now, with groups of researchers outside China probing for cracks in the firewall, a clearer picture is emerging.

"They're using a variety of methods. It isn't just one approach," says Jonathan Zittrain of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School.

For the first line of defense, Chinese police focus on the backbone networks that undergird the Internet in China, Mr. Zittrain and other members of his research project say.

Routers that connect the networks are encoded with the unique numerical addresses for the Web sites China deems objectionable, blocking, for example, purveyors of uncensored news, such as the BBC's Chinese and English news sites, and some Chinese Web sites based overseas.

To further plug holes, new filtering technology operated presumably by government authorities combs messages on the Internet, searching for objectionable words, the researchers say.

With this method, e-mails can be lost in Chinese cyberspace and never reach their destinations, and requests to search engines, which provide lists of Web sites based on words, can go unanswered, foreign and Chinese researchers say.

The research project by the three universities, known as the OpenNet Initiative, routed requests through computers in China to Google, Yahoo and Chinese search engines Baidu.com, in which Google Inc. is an investor, and Yisou.com, which is owned by Yahoo Inc.

Searches with sensitive terms like "Falun," for the Falun Gong spiritual movement that is banned in China, or "Free Tibet" were routinely cut off, without sending back an error message, the report says.

The result, the foreign researchers say, is that the Internet in China is very different from the relatively unfettered medium enjoyed in the West, with implications for the creation of a seamless world-wide Web of communications.

Mr. Zittrain says Saudi Arabia, for example, vigorously polices the Internet in that nation, but unlike China, Saudi authorities make public their general criteria for banning Web sites.

Further bolstering this divided Internet are Internet-service companies themselves.

Either at the behest of Chinese authorities or in fear of running afoul of vague regulations, these companies are doing their own censoring, removing provocative comments and blocking messages deemed sensitive, say the researchers and Internet-service-company executives.

Tencent Technologies Ltd., a company based in the Chinese city of Shenzhen whose stock trades in Hong Kong, is allegedly going a step farther, requiring customers of its popular instant-messaging service, QQ, to download software to their PCs that contains a filtering mechanism, according to the Berkeley China Internet Project.

Chinese hackers, who unlocked the program file, ComToolKit.dll, found a list of banned key words, and an Internet executive in China passed it on to Xiao Qiang, a veteran human-rights campaigner and head of the Berkeley project.

Mr. Xiao, in a report posted on the project's Web site, says one analysis of the list estimated that 15% of the forbidden terms are sexual while the rest are political, including the names of Chinese leaders and words including "human rights" and "dictatorship."

Tencent wouldn't comment on the report.

Spokeswoman Catherine Chan says the company declines to discuss software applications or programs "for commercial reasons."

Google has had previous run-ins with Chinese authorities.

Two year ago they temporarily blocked all access to the search engine.

When service was restored, Google's feature that stores copies of Web sites, called its cache function, was disabled.

Chinese Internet users had been able to view banned sites by accessing the cache, which is designed to make Web searching faster.

Since the stored pages could be accessed without visiting the original Web sites, Chinese consumers were able to get around some of the government's blocking techniques.

The disabling of Google's cache function ignited suspicions among industry executives and analysts that the California-based company struck a deal to remain in the booming Chinese market.

Google has previously denied any such compromise to get its search engine unblocked, and Mr. Zittrain's research team says its Internet probing proves that the blocking originates in China, not with Google.

A Google spokeswoman declined to comment.

Yet the researchers also say China's firewall is porous, and intentionally so. The idea isn't to seal China off - an impossibility given the country's size and the government's eagerness to tap the Internet for commerce.

Rather, they say, the system is designed to make it prohibitively difficult to access or disseminate objectionable content.

"It's a deliberate way to frustrate people," says Ronald Deibert of the University of Toronto.


Some of the more than 1,000 words and phrases allegedly filtered by the Chinese instant messaging service, QQ:

• Democracy
• Christian
• Falun Gong
• Hu Jintao
• Human rights
• Multiparty
• Oppose corruption
• Underground church
• Overthrow
• Prostitution

• Riot

• Sex

• Taiwan independence

• Tiananmen

• Traitor

September 1, 2004 at 06:01 PM | Permalink


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I have unfiltered access to any site from China using www.Freedur.com. This little proxy rocks. They offer free trial. Try it, you’ll like it.

Posted by: Jeff | May 29, 2009 5:15:30 PM

I have lived in China for over 2 years, previous to which I worked for a large internet company in the UK. I would hardly call China's filtering high tech. I can access news sites from around the world, including those which contain articles on China, Taiwan and Tibetan political issues. Adult sites are also accessible.

The only site which I am inconveniently denied access to is news.bbc.co.uk. However use of an external web proxy easily fixes this problem.

Posted by: Ben Barron | Sep 12, 2005 8:34:24 AM


Posted by: nivea5 | Feb 19, 2005 2:06:01 AM

I read with great interest the recent bookofjoe piece on China's new internet censorship. I write mystery novels set in the Tibetan gulag of China and I've been getting repeated reports that access to my website is blocked in China. I don't disguise in those books my condemnation of what the Chinese have done to their minority populations and know the government is unhappy with my books--but this new form of high tech filtering reaching outside the Chinese borders raises censorship to a whole new level.

Posted by: Eliot Pattison | Sep 28, 2004 8:48:02 PM

Since that will no longer be a problem, perhaps you can send a message to whomever controls that listing and ask them to check the site again.

Then again, if it's a work thing, perhaps they don't want you visiting anyway.

Posted by: Phillip Winn | Sep 3, 2004 3:16:22 PM

I'm a long way from China, but I still can't see bookofjoe at work, I get the nice "Violation of internet policy for adult material" message.

Posted by: lacarita | Sep 2, 2004 11:17:52 PM

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