Web Doomsday: Great Firewall of China Case Study   no comments

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In this post, I will discuss how censorship in China is analogous to the lack of web availability. In this, I will consider how people have reacted and what the long-term effects have been.

In mid-2012, Michael Anti, a web blogger from China, shared his experience from behind the Great Firewall of China in a TED talk. In China, there exists heavy censorship on a country-wide and local scale – the biggest digital censorship in the world. This is despite it having over 500 million internet users, and over 300 million microbloggers – almost the population of the USA. So called Chinanet due to its partial segregation from the worldwide Internet, it is particularly famous for blocking common web services from Chinese citizens, such as Facebook and Twitter. But Anti describes how following blocks, it is common for new similar services to pop up for use only within China. One example is Weibo in place of Twitter – it looks like Twitter, behaves like Twitter and people use it like Twitter.


So what is the motivation behind this? Why does the government feel that services used within China use should be hosted in China? Anti explains that when a service is run in China, the government has access to the data. With this, they have the ability to monitor and police the activities that happen online. For example, someone trying to arrange a coup (even if it was just a joke) would be immediately flagged and arrested. It’s not possible to post the name of the president, post the city “Chongqing” or search for the name of many famous leaders. If a group of people arrange to meet, the police will be at the meeting place ready to turn people back. This is the government’s response to a fear that a large congregation, whether on the web or in person, is a threat to the regime that could lead to a revolution.

But Anti also raises the point that Chinese citizens live like this, with relatively few disturbances caused by the censorship. This is in great contrast to Hosni Mubarak’s shut down of the internet in Egypt, which caused riots on the street. Anti suggests that in China, the firewall is not perceived as an extreme measure – it’s possible to still speak out online. He give the example of a train crash involving two high-speed trains. Millions became angry at the railway minister ‘s handling of the situation, accusing him of a cover-up. Protesters took to microblogging, despite the tight control of what is posted. But the rail minister was subsequently sacked. Anti suggests that the government were fed up of the rail minister and used public opinion as an excuse to sack and imprison him. Anti further suggests that this happens on a much wider scale – people are free to criticise those that the government secretly wish to discredit. In other words, the censorship has become a tool for a political fight.

Anti describes it as a cat-and-mouse game, where internet-users (the mice) are in a constant pursuit by the censorship (the cat). He goes on to suggest that these cats may spread to a wider audience, with legislation such as SOPA, PIPA, ACTA, TPP and ITU becoming threats to the freedom of the Web. Further to this, he questions whether we should believe the big companies such as Faceook and Google are friends of the mouse, or if they are becoming the cats. After all, if the West were to experience loss of the web in some degree caused by a political agenda, it would probably be sudden, in the form of legislation or commercial interest. So Anti’s warning is apt – the risk to the web from political and commercial interests is very real, and now is an important time to consider those risks.

In the next blog post, I’ll be discussing the web as a convenience and a luxury, and what the reaction might be if we were to lose the web.

Written by Peter West on December 13th, 2013

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