In the final years of the twentieth century, euphoria over the exponential growth of the Internet, real time global exchanges, and the emergence of virtual communities, freed from time and space constraints led enthusiasts to prophetically proclaim the death of geography (Virilio 1997). Since the middle of the 1990s, new challenges have emerged in terms of Internet regulation due to the exponential growth in the number of users, the range of data and services available online, and the extension of the network to the rest of the planet. This ongoing expansion has fed power rivalries between Internet governing organizations, national governments, online communities, and merchants. Attempts by national governments to regulate Internet content became just as frantic as the pursuit of profit by new merchants on the net. Meanwhile, opposing minority groups were discovering the potentialities of a powerful tool to get their voice heard and spur national mobilization.
The first popular uprising in which the Internet played a major role was arguably the Serbian students’ protest in 1996 in response to the cancellation of municipal elections by Slobodan Milosevic (Douzet, 1997). Two earlier attempts to revolt against the government in 1991 and 1992 had failed. This time around, the students set up an Internet website relayed by foreign sites which made it possible to sustain international mobilization and pressure, raise funds, organize demonstrations and resume short-wave broadcasts of local radio stations, silenced by the regime. Milosevic was finally forced to surrender.
The message became loud and clear for authoritarian regimes who now worried that their power may be severely undermined. The arrival of satellite dishes, which the Chinese government could not control, provided access to the world. Technological challenges were huge, especially as the Internet developed extremely quickly.
Explosive Internet Growth in China
In China, the first communication node that made it possible to send an email message was inaugurated in 1987, but Internet growth only really took off in 1994, when the network became fully functional after the opening of China’s first full international Internet connection. When the Internet became commercially available in 1995, users barely numbered 5,000. In those days, the authorities controlled everything that went in and out of the country, including the Internet. Since regular users were so few in numbers, it was possible to fully monitor the content from the network node. But after fifteen days of browsing, the Communist Party’s Propaganda head ordered a suspension of all new connections and a complete restructuring of the network. Anticipating growth, all networks were forced to disconnect and subsequently reconnected via international lines provided exclusively by the Ministry of Post and Telecommunication.
Thereafter, the Chinese Internet experienced exponential growth. The government took time to adapt by initially managing developments on a piecemeal basis and drafting regulations as problems emerged. For example, the authorities ordered users to formally identify themselves within thirty days of using the Internet. This meant providing an ID card or passport, filling out forms in triplicate and signing a Net Access Responsibility Agreement in which users pledged not to reveal state secrets, obscene or pornographic documents, or threaten state security. On February 1, 1996, Premier Li Peng signed a law on “Temporary Regulations Governing Computer Information Networks and the Internet” (Barmé and Ye 1997), reaffirming the State’s total sovereignty over Internet development and users’ absolute obligation to channel all Internet connection through the international ports maintained by the Ministry of Post and Telecommunication.
The government could just as easily have decided to prevent the expansion of the Internet. But demand was keen, coupled with enormous potential for economic and social development. So the Chinese authorities decided to invest in infrastructure development while simultaneously building a computer cordon sanitaire around China called the “Great Net Wall,” creating a vast and complex body of legislation that involved all aspects of online connections, access, and exchange of information. From 2000 on, the government clearly announced the plan to “drive industrialization through informatization, make better use of information technology’s advantage as late starters and attain progress on social productivity by leaps and bounds” (Xue 2005, 241). But even such determination could not dispel the authorities’ fear that new technologies might threaten the regime by authorizing free expression of political ideas or “harmful” information. Therefore, massive investments reflecting a tremendous increase in users were shadowed by constant surveillance and internet monitoring. China already had 46 million Internet users in 2002, 87 million in 2004, and 137 million at the beginning of 2007, approximately 10.5% of the total population and more than 30% in Beijing alone. Nearly 76% enjoyed high-speed Internet connection. The number of registered “.cn” domain names in China increased by 64.4% (1.8 million) in just one year (CNNIC 2007). In spite of the phenomenal growth, Chinese authorities still managed to clamp down on political opposition and control Internet content by developing a sound mix of high technology and ancestral political traditions.
- MAP 1 – NUMBER OF INTERNET USERS IN THE WORLD (TOP 20 COUNTRIES, 2007)
Internet World Stats. Cartography: F. Douzet.
Tools for Controlling the Internet: Filtering, Collaboration, Suppression
China is a textbook case of Internet censorship. The government uses both technological filtering with active complicity of foreign companies forced to abide by local rules in order to be allowed to do business in China. Tens of thousands Internet patrol agents constantly scan exchanges and Internet content, producing pressure for a high level of self-censorship.
The range of inaccessible or “politically-sensitive” topics on the Chinese web is enormous and deliberately ill-defined. The authorities are likely to crackdown on information that is politically “subversive” or critical of the government, and the penalties imposed reflect the seriousness of the issue. The government liberally grants freedom of expression in economics, culture, and leisure activities. But open criticism aimed at government actions, the Communist Party or even opposition political parties is completely banned. The government tries to suppress all reference to controversial issues like the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989, the Falun Gong spiritual movement, criticism of China’s human rights record, support for a free Tibet, and, more generally, pro-democracy or pro-Western societies. Although the state no longer directly controls the press as a result of the 2003 media reforms, it still exercises a very high level of censorship, and journalists are often disqualified or even imprisoned for no other reason than to discredit them. So it is natural that the government’s policy should result in a high degree of self-censorship among journalists who wish to hold onto their job and, indeed, their freedom. It would normally be difficult to implement such levels of censorship with a tool like the Internet, as the design and culture are diametrically opposed to the concept of control. China, however, has taken on this challenge lock, stock, and barrel.
Internet Patrol Agents
Tens of thousands of government agents patrol the Internet in China (30,000 in 2002 according to Amnesty International). Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reports are full of lists regarding Internet-related political prisoners. On February 6, 2007, Reporters Without Borders published an appeal for retrial by the wife of Yang Zili, a dissident imprisoned for eight years on false charges. This request was based on fresh evidence that had materialized. Yang was a computer engineer and webmaster who had published articles advocating political freedom, criticized the government crackdown on the Falun Gong group, and deplored the economic hardship of Chinese peasants.
In 2004, Amnesty International counted 54 prisoners who were detained for Internet-related offenses in China. This reflected a 60% increase compared to a study conducted in 2002. Quite a few languished in prison for many months while awaiting trial and were often denied the right to see their family or call a lawyer.
Internet patrol agents constantly scan communications and websites, conduct Internet café raids, organize surveillance of dissidents identified by the net, and adopt traditional methods like whistle-blowing and infiltration of groups to arrest suspects. But this is not where the main activity of censorship and surveillance takes place. Such activity starts at the base of the network architecture. Internet patrol agents, along with thousands of civilians and Internet service provider employees, work towards upholding and enforcing rules to protect their business and their freedom. With, as we shall see, a bit of help from some large American companies.
The “Great Net Wall”
Western critics call it the “Great Net Wall” or the “Great Firewall of China.” In China, it is simple political censorship that the government applies at all levels of the network infrastructure to delineate Internet borders beginning with the physical infrastructure and supervised by the Ministry of Information Industry. The Chinese Internet, which operates along the same lines as a network within a company, is a sort of Intranet physically connected to the global Internet via a handful of major national networks. Nine state-licensed Internet access providers provide physical access to the global Internet and act as wholesale suppliers of Internet connections, selling to thousands of local retail sellers or Internet service providers. So when an individual user wants to access the Internet, the connection is bought from an Internet service provider who has purchased Internet access from one of the nine national suppliers (backbone network operators). These nine are, actually, gates at the border of the Chinese network.
These network operators manage routers, which run data packets back and forth between the Chinese and international Internet. Filters are usually installed in these routers to combat viruses, spam, and worms. But these filters can also be easily diverted for political censorship, which includes filtering Internet content, blocking total access to certain websites, or selecting information by typing keywords like “Falun Gong,” “massacre,” or even “June 4,” a term used by the Chinese to refer to the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989. BBC websites are systematically inaccessible on the Chinese Internet. The subtlety of China’s policy, which says a lot about the power and attractiveness of China’s economic growth, was convincing US companies to develop the appropriate tailor-made technology. Cisco Systems developed much of China’s Internet infrastructure, an undertaking that was shared by Sun Microsystems, Nortel Networks, VeriSign, and 3COM. These companies were accused by human rights organizations of aiding and abetting China in the development and management of censorship systems. They denied any responsibility, saying that they were happy to sell the technology and were not accountable for its use. A CISCO engineer admitted that his company had developed a special device (firewall box) for analyzing data content in China, arguing that access to the Internet under surveillance may be preferable to no Internet access at all (Gutmann 2002). The options are clear for US companies: abide by the rules, or lose a lucrative and promising market.
Registration and Monitoring of Users: Cooperation of Internet Service and Content Providers
Network censorship is the first level of control. The second level involves regulations and laws that provide for explicit cooperation of all companies or organizations providing connection and information. These providers are responsible for what is published through them, forcing them to take full control, thereby magnifying government forces of network censorship and surveillance. Three laws, issued in 2000 and supplemented thereafter, significantly enhance network monitoring and restrict users’ rights by largely delegating censorship to companies.
In order to have the right to practice, a Chinese Internet service provider must first obtain a license from the Ministry of Information Industry. It is then obliged to maintain a file with the name of each customer, their account number, IP address, and telephone number. Since 2000, Internet service providers must also track websites visited by subscribers. The providers that host Internet content (forums, blogs, journalism, etc.) must keep a copy of everything available on the net. Online newspapers cannot exist without the approval of the government. Others may only circulate documents that have been previously published by the state-controlled media. Since 2002, Internet service providers must also record their users’ messages and return them to authorities upon request.
Internet content providers must also be accountable and specifically, supervise the content of all that they make available online. They must publish on their website regulations related to services offered (messaging, blogs, etc.). They are also required to immediately remove any information that goes against these rules and immediately denounce illegal publications. They must be able to provide, upon request from the authorities, addresses of users who visited their site over the last 60 days.
Internet cafes are no exception to this rule and regularly undergo massive investigations. In 2001, the Chinese authorities shut down 8,000 “Cybercafes” for three months. Following a fire at an Internet cafe in Beijing, surveillance and safety measures were ramped up, leading to the closure of 2,400 Internet cafes in the capital and 150,000 more across the country. Most of these cafes did not have a license. People wanting to open Internet cafes are now required to first obtain an operating license. This is a long and bureaucratic process involving a guarantee of capital and human resources, meeting all security requirement of the Department of Commerce.
In 2002, the government required the installation of software for filtering pornography and any other content deemed harmful or subversive in all Internet cafes. Minors are banned from entering Internet cafes. Like other Internet service providers, Internet cafes managers must keep detailed 60-day records of users’ names, unauthorized pages they have attempted to access, and different sites visited. They are supposed to submit a report to authorities on any illegal or suspect activity and also denounce those who commit violations.
Internet service and content providers must not only help monitor Internet access and denounce offenders, they are also required to take full part in the surveillance and control of Internet content. The list is long, vague, and non-negotiable. . .
Regulation of Content
In September 2000, the State Council established the first formal list of prohibited information:
(1) Information that goes against the basic principles set in the Constitution; (2) Information that endangers national security, divulges state secrets, subverts the government, or undermines national unification; (3) Information that is detrimental to the honor and interests of the state; (4) Information that instigates ethnic hatred or ethnic discrimination, or that undermines national unity; (5) Information that undermines the state’s policy for religions, or that propagates heretical organizations or feudalistic and superstitious beliefs; (6) Information that disseminates rumors, disturbs social order, or undermines social stability; (7) Information that disseminates pornography and other salacious materials; that promotes gambling, violence, homicide, and terror; or that instigates the commission of crimes; (8) Information that insults or slanders other people, or that infringes upon other people’s legitimate rights and interests; and (9) Other information prohibited by the law or administrative regulations.
(Amnesty International 2002)
While the above list is sufficiently long enough to not necessarily offend Western sensibilities, it does however include a wide range of special cases that are left to the sole discretion of censors. But these censors are numerous and act at different levels, without necessarily revealing themselves. In Saudi Arabia, when users click on an unauthorized link, they are directed to a page that informs them that the web page they are attempting to access has been blocked by the government. In China, users end up with an error message, an abrupt disconnection, or a sudden and extremely slow connection. Filtering is taboo and secret. The lack of any clear and precise detail on what is permitted or prohibited leaves no room for negotiation, resulting in large-scale arbitrariness and strengthens self-censorship by way of a precaution principle.
However, some practices are known to lead directly to jail: sign online petitions, call for political and social reforms, openly criticize the government, refer to the Tiananmen Square events, and support the Falun Gong sect or political dissidents. All are extremely dangerous activities. As for the rest, it’s not always easy to identify what will cause offense.
The proliferation of intertwined regulations and laws, and administration enforcement only adds to the confusion and uncertainty that prevails regarding the limits of what is acceptable. According to the Supreme People’s Court ruling on January 21, 2001, individuals who disclose state secrets over the Internet may be sentenced to death. Despite a law detailing areas of concern, the definition of a “state secret” remains largely broad and at the discretion of the Bureau for Protection of State Secrets.
As a result, Internet service and content providers alike resort to using filtering software and a healthy dose of self-censorship and monitoring to minimize the risk of being held liable for prohibited publications. Foreign companies that intend to use the Internet receive a very thorough briefing. Those wishing to build a long-term presence in China eventually give in or bend with the rules. However, in the case of service providers on the web, this ranges from active participation in censorship, at best, to direct cooperation in the crackdown on dissidents, at worst.
Collaboration of American Web Giants
Yahoo!, Microsoft, Google, Skype. . . American Web giants have faced criticism for agreeing to install censorship systems in their Chinese websites and thus cooperated in the curtailing of human rights in China. In theory, China’s desire to be part of the Internet could have as much power as the capitalist enterprises. Instead, US companies seek to curry favor with the Chinese government, conceding all bargaining power.
“Whereas once the brightest minds in Silicon Valley strove to connect the world and open access to vast stores of information, today they are just as likely to do the opposite” (Deibert 2007).
However, the degree of cooperation varies from company to company. The first company to penetrate the Chinese market was Yahoo!, establishing a Chinese website and an office in Beijing in 1999. Like Internet companies operating in China, Yahoo! voluntarily signed the Internet Society of China’s “Pledge on Self-Discipline,” without necessarily being constrained by law. Neither Microsoft nor Google signed this pledge when they later arrived on the Chinese market. As a result, the content made available by Yahoo! to Chinese users was filtered through thousands of keywords and phrases banned from the search engine, and also from a black list of completely inaccessible sites, which the company never made public.
The case involving Shi Tao deeply shocked the American public, especially Internet activists. On April 20, 2004, the 37-year-old journalist sent a message from his personal Yahoo! email account, detailing how the government intended to maintain social peace on the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incident. The Chinese Internet patrol agents intercepted this message and requested Yahoo! to provide them with the account user’s identity, and the company complied. In April 2005, the journalist was sentenced to ten years in prison for divulging state secrets abroad. According to the survey conducted by Human Rights Watch, Yahoo! was involved in the arrest of at least four Chinese Internet users. The company defended its actions by stating that since its servers were located in China and were managed by Chinese employees, it had no choice but to follow local laws.
In June 2005, Microsoft was accused by the press of having blocked the terms “freedom” and “democracy” in Chinese blogs, at the request of the government. Skype developed a Chinese version of its telephone, video conferencing and instant messaging software, managed by Tom Online, the local partner in China. Managers admitted that in order to comply with prevailing practices in China, this modified version blocks certain sensitive words in text messages.
Google, initially, put up a show of resistance, but failed. The company first tried to stay out of China by hosting the Chinese search engine created in 1999 on American servers, saying that censorship went against its values. In 2002, Google realized that its services were frequently inaccessible to Chinese users, and a few months later, was completely blocked. The company refused to capitulate and access was eventually restored two weeks later. But many requests no longer appeared and the server became incredibly slow, discouraging users. Fearing reprisals from the Chinese government, Google eventually set up an office in China in 2005 and complied with local rules, arguing that a filtered Internet is better than no Internet at all. However, Google took several precautions to avoid being caught in the same situation as Yahoo!. Only a few servers are located in China and more importantly, Google has provided neither email services nor blogs or other such services, to avoid compromising the privacy and security of its users. The commercial benefits of the transaction remain limited. Google’s market share, which was 50% in 2004, fell to 16% in three years, and it was overtaken by its local competitor Baidu.
China does not hesitate to practice economic patriotism where the Internet is concerned. “A local manager explains that everything runs smoothly so long as the legislature decides not to change the regulations” (Fontaine 2007). Yahoo! finally understood the need for partnering with a local player and therefore acquired a 40% stake in the Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba while eBay, the online auction giant invested €27 million in the Chinese company Tom Online, and took a back seat in this partnership. Google is facing stiff competition from Baidu, its Chinese rival. “The latter is hyper-aggressive and has an army of telephone operators who canvass companies by phone to sell them keywords,” (Fontaine 2007). In an aggressive bid to ramp up its lobbying policy, Google finally shifted its offices from Shanghai to Beijing, where the government and policy centers are located.
Propaganda through the Internet
The realization that the Internet could not only be closely monitored but also used as a tool for economic patriotism and extremely effective propaganda has played to the strength of the Chinese government. Xinhua news agency is central to the Communist Party propaganda system. The director has the rank of minister and directly reports to the government. It employs 8,400 people and publishes about 1,000 news reports daily, including 300 devoted to China. No subject gets into the Chinese press without the approval of the state agency. The SARS outbreak was one such case. So long as the government did not acknowledge the epidemic, there was no news report from the agency on the issue and consequently, no media coverage in the Chinese press. From the moment the government gave the go ahead, the press was flooded with news reports singing praises of government action to counter the spread of the epidemic.
Xinhua news agency is very active on the Internet and feeds the online press in China and abroad. According to Reporters Without Borders, nearly a third of all reports on China selected by Google News come from this agency. What’s more, Xinhua has branches in 105 countries and 8 offices in major foreign cities. However, the agency does not have the means to provide first-hand information and mainly relies on either recycled foreign news reports, which aligns with the official Chinese position or press releases from the Propaganda office.
- MAP 2 - INTERNET IN CHINA: USER DISTRIBUTION IN PROVINCES
Statistical Survey Report on the Internet Development in China, CNNIC, January 2007. Cartography: F. Douzet.
Journalists themselves have limited and monitored access to the Internet, especially for anything to do with domestic politics, the most censored sector. This does not mean that the government ignores these matters. On the contrary, it deals with them in its own way by creating, for example, English websites dedicated to Tibet (www.tibet.cn), where it declares that Tibetans are “among the happiest in China” and account for the highest proportion of centenarians, and it insists that human rights are respected by the government.
The online version of China Daily on the other hand, receives millions of hits per day. People Daily, China News, and CCTV all have Internet sites in English. Politicians have begun to understand how to exploit this tool and the foreign minister, Li Zhaoxing, was the first member of the government to agree, in December 2003, to participate in an online chat with Internet users.
The Chinese government has shown that the Internet could be “developed and sterilized at the same time” (Reporters Without Borders), much to the chagrin of activist groups who want the universal criteria of human rights to be fully respected in China. Nevertheless, based on the Chinese experience, current trends do offer some hope. Despite the censorship, China today enjoys contact with the world and an unprecedented level of communication and information.
Yet, It Is Opening Up. . .
It is worth remembering that not so long ago, there were only a handful of national newspapers, television channels, and radio stations, primarily The People’s Daily, China National Radio, and the CCTV channel. China now has over 300 radio stations, nearly 400 television channels, thousands of newspapers and magazines, and almost 400 million mobile phones. In 2004, there were 41 main telephone lines per 100 inhabitants as against 0.2 in 1980. The number of Internet users shot up from 5,000 to 137 million in twelve years. Plenty of information is available on topics that are not politically sensitive and is freely exchanged. China is opening up faster than anyone had anticipated; of course, not fast enough for political prisoners.
Barring the suppression of political dissidence, the principle of censorship is not necessarily denounced by all Chinese who, on the one hand, are in a position to compare what they have now with what they had before—which was not much—and, on the other hand, may actually consider that censorship in certain areas (pornography, national security, etc.) is justified. This view is actually shared by many politicians in the West who have tried, with varying degrees of success, to impose Internet access and broadcast restrictions and get the cooperation of access providers. The law for building confidence in a digital economy, promulgated in 2004 in France, was the subject of fierce debates. The original version requested Internet service providers carry out prior monitoring of the content on web pages hosted by them and block foreign sites banned by France. Nonetheless, universities, companies, and other organizations in many countries are usually equipped with filtering systems that not only protect the local network but also generally block access to sites deemed undesirable for their users.
Having said that, resistance is building in China. While the government is busy developing technologies to perfect censorship, Chinese technophiles are coming up with tools to outsmart them. Scientists in the United States have created a proxy server system called “Triangle Boy” referring to a whole fleet of servers outside the Chinese firewall and a mother ship that these servers are linked to, but which the Chinese government cannot detect. Internet service providers can only see the intermediate server, and not the end server where users log on. Every day, Chinese users receive a list of Triangle Boy servers via email, which allows them to visit websites that they would otherwise not have access to. The addresses of these servers constantly change, preventing the government from tracking them down since such an action would require enormous resources. Other software for enabling online anonymity such as Anonymizer and Tor are regularly used by the Chinese. But it’s obviously not easy to gather user-data on this. According to a survey conducted in China in 2000, 10% of users admitted to regularly using and 25% to occasionally using, proxy servers (Human Rights Watch 2006).
It is simply a matter of time before the Public Security Bureau finds a way to crack down on this issue. In all likelihood, the government will once again rope in American companies eager to expand their business in China and get them to develop software capable of detecting and blocking proxy servers as and when they appear. Nothing in American foreign policy currently stops them from doing so.
The Chinese government has been very preoccupied with regulating the Internet, so much so that it has neglected the quality and quantity of information resources available to industry and the general public.
Nation-States and Internet Governance
It is ironic that even as we wonder whether the values and means of communication provided by the Internet will triumph over authoritarianism in China, territorial tensions are increasing around the Internet, both in authoritarian regimes as well as in a few Western democracies.
During the second phase of the World Summit on Information Society that took place in Tunis in 2005,
This summit, organized by the International Telecommunications... while China not only defended its content filtering system, but also proposed to extend it to an international forum governing global communications, a number of Western democracies were demanding fairer participation with the United States in Internet governance-related matters. In spite of its crackdown on dissidents, China still signed the Tunis Commitment which reiterated the Geneva Declaration of Principles of 2003: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
While reaping huge economic benefits from the development of the Internet, China has demonstrated a tremendous capacity for strategic and technological innovation to combat the liberalization induced by this very development. The Open Net Initiative, which conducted censorship tests over a long period, published a report in 2005 that proved that filtering has become more sophisticated, subtle, and effective over the years. Cashing in on the incredible economic potential of the Internet, China has been purchasing technological cooperation from foreign companies and turning a deaf ear to the timid reproaches of Western democracies regarding human rights’ compliance. Yet it continues to open itself up to the world faster than ever, and the number of users should keep growing exponentially in the years to come.
It is safe to bet that Chinese authorities will never relinquish control over Internet content and will find solutions to every new technical challenge that appears, and that dissidents will in turn find ways of circumventing them. Thus the Internet embodies the paradox of being both a democratizing force and a tool of oppression, in the same way that globalization also creates regional setbacks. Neither geography nor the Chinese dictatorship has succumbed to the development of the Internet.