Feb 04, 2008

China: Great Ladders Combat the Great Firewall

Human ingenuity is showing through as China’s state authorities continue to restrict its citizens’ access to internet sites such as Flickr, YouTube and Wikipedia.

Human ingenuity is showing through as China’s state authorities continue to restrict its citizens’ access to internet sites such as Flickr, YouTube and Wikipedia.

Below is an article written by Howard W. French and published by International Herald Tribune:

As an 18-year-old student with an interest in the Internet, Zhu Nan had been itching to say something about the country's pervasive online censorship system, widely known here as the Great Firewall.

When China's censors began blocking access to the popular photo-sharing site Flickr, Zhu felt the moment had come. Writing on his blog last year [2007], the student, who is now a freshman at a university in this city, questioned the rationale for Internet restrictions, and in subsequent posts, began passing along tips on how to evade them.

"Officials in our country claimed that Internet censorship is done according to the law," Zhu wrote. "If so, why not let people know about this legal project, and why, instead, ban the Web sites that publicize and examine those legal policies? If you're determined to do this, you shouldn't be afraid of criticism."

Zhu's obscure blog post and his subsequent activism is a small part of what many here regard as a watershed moment. In recent months, China's censors have tightened controls over the Internet, often blacking out sites that had no discernible political content. In the process, they have fostered a backlash, as many people who previously had little interest in politics have become active in resisting the controls.

And all of it comes at a time of increasing risk for those who choose to protest. Human rights advocates say the government has been broadening its crackdown on any signs of dissent as the Olympic Games in Beijing draw near.

For a vast majority of Internet users, censorship still does not appear to be much of a factor. The most popular Web applications here are games and messaging services, and the most visited Internet sites focus on everyday subjects like entertainment news and sports. Many, in fact, seem only vaguely aware that China's Internet universe is carefully pruned, and even among those who know, a majority hardly seems to care.

But growing numbers of others are becoming increasingly resentful of restrictions on a wide range of Web sites, including Flickr, YouTube, Wikipedia, MySpace (sometimes), Blogspot and many other sites that the public sees as sources of harmless diversion or information. The mounting resentment has inspired a wave of increasingly determined social resistance of a kind that is uncommon in China.

This resistance is taking many forms, from lawsuits by Internet users against government-owned service providers, claiming that the blocking of sites is illegal, to a growing network of software writers who develop code aimed at overcoming the restrictions. An Internet-based word-of-mouth campaign has taken shape, in which bloggers and Web page owners post articles to spread awareness of the Great Firewall, or share links to programs that will help evade it.

In almost every instance, the resistance has been fired by the surprise and indignation when people bumped up against a system that they had only vaguely suspected existed. "I had had an impression that some kind of mechanism controls the Internet in China, but I had no idea about the Great Firewall," said Pan Liang, a writer of children's literature and a Web site operator who first learned the extent of the controls after a friend's blog was blocked. "I was really annoyed at first," Pan said. "Then the 17th Party Congress came, and I received an order that my Web site, which is about children's literature, had to close its message board. It made me even angrier."

Like others, Pan used his Web page to post solutions for overcoming the restrictions to some banned sites, and then he used a historical allusion to mock his country's censorship system.

"Many people don't know that 300 years after Emperor Kangxi ordered an end to construction of the Great Wall, our great republic has built an invisible great wall," he wrote. "Can blocking really work? Kangxi knew the Great Wall was a huge lie: just think how many soldiers are needed to guard those thousands of miles."

A 17-year-old blogger from Guangdong Province who posted instructions on how to get to YouTube, overcoming the firewall's restrictions, was no less philosophical. "I don't know if it's better to speak out or keep silent, but if everyone keeps silent, the truth will be buried," wrote the girl, who uses the online name Ruyue. "I don't want to be silent, even if everyone else shuts up."

The Chinese government seems particularly wary of video-sharing sites like YouTube, and has recently tightened regulations on domestic Internet providers in ways that are aimed at controlling such services.

Others, meanwhile, have gone beyond launching Internet-based responses like these and taken more direct action. One such person is Du Dongjing, 38, an information technology engineer in Shanghai who sued a branch of China Telecom for contract violation because of the service provider's unacknowledged restrictions on Web content.

In this case what initially angered Du was the surprise blocking of his own business Web site last February [2007]. The site markets personal finance software, and had no editorial content of any kind. When the service provider failed to explain why the link went dead, Du took the phone company to court.

His lawsuit was rejected by a Shanghai court in October [2007], but the case has been heard in appeal. "The Americans have an expression, 'You can't fight City Hall,' " Du said. "However, I believe that with the help of today's Internet, the mood of the public, I can win this case. I can even make a contribution to improving Chinese democracy."

Even as anticensorship activism spreads, views are divided about whether a grass-roots campaign can prevail. Some see strong continued popular resistance to the limits imposed by tens of thousands of well-financed government technicians operating powerful computers and predict a breakthrough.

Yuan Mingli, who created an anti-Great Firewall evasion group because of his love for Wikipedia, said the government was already at work on new generations of Internet technology aimed at insulating Chinese users even more from the rest of world. But he predicted its failure. "That's impossible, fundamentally, because people's hearts have changed," he said, adding that the system would "eventually break down precisely because China cannot be completely disconnected to the outside world anymore."

For some of the anticensorship activists, creating a broader awareness of censorship is itself a victory. "If you don't know what's on top of you, than you won't fight back against it," said Li Xieheng, a blogger who wrote a program he named Gladder, meaning Great Ladder, to help users of the Firefox browser overcome Great Firewall restrictions. "It's just like many people not feeling that China isn't free. They're not aware of it and feel things are natural here, but that's just the power of media control."

Li said he expected the Great Firewall to continue adapting to the tactics of its opponents. The movement, though, has proved the power of public opinion as an important limitation of the censor's power, he said. "Why don't they just take Google down?" he asked. "It's because they don't want to have a scene and have everybody know. A lot of people came to know about the system because of Flickr, and that is something the system needs to weigh."