Features

The "Great Firewall"

China | Big-name corporations kowtow to censors; "hacktivists" are finding new ways in

Issue: "Broken promises," March 25, 2006

The preface to Google's corporate code of conduct opens with the company's informal motto: "Don't be evil." But last month, the House Committee on International Relations impugned the righteousness of Google, Microsoft, Cisco, and Yahoo for contributing to the "Great Firewall of China." Democratic congressman Tom Lantos of California, a Holocaust survivor and longtime human-rights advocate, scolded the darlings of U.S. technology for capitulating to internet censorship requirements, calling the practice "abhorrent" and questioning "how your corporate executives sleep at night." With more than 80 journalists and bloggers now in jail for trespassing the Chinese firewall, it's a fair question.

Despite considerable growth and economic loosening in China over the past few decades, the government has maintained strict control over the flow of information. Internet restrictions ban websites that feature pornography, critical political speech, or sensitive historical topics such as the Tiananmen Square massacre. International news agencies, such as the BBC's Chinese-language service, and online encyclopedias, such as Wikipedia, are also off-limits.

The Chinese government enforces its code with roughly a dozen agencies, policing internet cafes, monitoring private use electronically, and strongly encouraging citizens to rat each other out. Thousands of websites are shut down each year, their curators facing potential jail sentences.

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A complex system of filters prevents foreign web content from easily entering the country. Google's popular search engine bogs down to such slow speeds in China as to render it unusable, prompting the company's January decision to launch a Chinese version. The specialized product, which censors millions of banned web pages and runs on China-based servers, is aimed at tapping the country's ever-expanding consumer base of 110 million internet users, if with heavily censored content. By doing so, Google has unwittingly tapped a substantial surge of public indignation-and from its most loyal American patrons. How can the premier icon of instant information participate in fascist censorship?

Google defends its new business venture as a necessary baby step toward more open access down the road. Had the company not agreed to work within the confines of Chinese law, its search engine would maintain almost no usable presence in China at all.

Microsoft, Cisco, and Yahoo have levied similar defenses for their respective cooperation with China's repressive regime. Microsoft lawyer Jack Krumholtz told the hostile U.S. House committee, "Ultimately, we must ask, Would the Chinese citizen be better off without our services?"

But critics argue that such lesser-of-two-evils justifications oversimplify a situation with more than two options. Experimental software recently developed within the United States has proved the viability of a third way. Freegate and UltraSurf, free programs created by Chinese émigrés associated with the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, are guiding Chinese internet users past obstructive filters.

North Carolina--based Freegate allows Chinese users to end-run the censors by connecting to the internet via U.S. servers. For founder Bill Xia, the technological pursuit grew out of personal conviction. After turning to Falun Gong in 1999, he began to see what he viewed as discrepancies between what he knew of the movement, which combines calisthenics with New Age spirituality, and its portrayal as "an evil cult" banned on China's internet. Falun Gong discussion groups, like many church groups and religious speech, are monitored by the government, restricted, and in many cases dropped if they are deemed subversive. Authorities are known to use the internet traffic of such "subversives" to track down and arrest activists.

"I started to see the need to let people access uncensored info," Mr. Xia told the Raleigh News and Observer. Freegate use spikes when censored news happens, as it did last November when a chemical spill in Harbin closed off the city's water supply for days, and in December when police in Guangdong shot at labor protesters. Mr. Xia calls his services "red pills" after the drugs used in The Matrix to propel its heroes from totalitarian brainwashing into the real world.

Chinese government efforts to technologically thwart the enterprise have thus far failed, but the challenge of advertising such software within China remains paramount. "Hacktivists" like Mr. Xia have to rely on word-of-mouth traveling via their own clandestine internet portals. The U.S. government through Voice of America and Radio Free Asia provides an ongoing portion of funding for both programs, which each purport to serve roughly 100,000 people.

Rather than throw their considerable weight behind such subversive efforts, Google, Microsoft, Cisco, and Yahoo have maintained the importance of following the laws of the land wherever they do business. In 2004, Yahoo went so far as to provide China's Communist Party with the personal e-mail address of Shi Tao, a Chinese editor who sent e-mails criticizing media restrictions and is now serving a 10-year prison term. Rep. Lantos drew comparisons to Nazi Germany in arguing that legal compliance is not always ethical.

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