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The Golden Shield

The CCP began it’s campaign to “purify the internet environment” with a crackdown on porn sites in April 2007.  As AP reported, Zhang Xinfeng, deputy public security minister, was under no allusions as to where the roots of the darker side of the Internet reside, “The boom of pornographic content on the internet has contaminated cyberspace and perverted China’s young minds. The inflow of pornographic materials from abroad and lax domestic control are to blame for the existing problems in China’s cyberspace.”.  What followed was a few arrests for hosting “cyber strip shows” and a major clampdown on the myriad blogs and search engines hosting in China.  Cai Wu, director of the Information Office of China’s Cabinet, told Xinhua that “As more and more illegal and unhealthy information spreads through the blog and search engine, we will take effective measures to put the BBS, blog and search engine under control.”

Throughout the year, the government produces a list of guidelines for ISPs and Internet companies to follow.  Most recently, China Digital Times published a translation of the latest set of rules, which said that posts the criticise the Chinese political system should be “absolutely blocked or deleted”, information about the tiger being skinned and beheaded should be deleted, and all sorts of other rather distasteful stuff, including the rather chilling “Strengthen positive guidance. Web sites should proactively guide public opinion in a positive way, highlight positive voices and create a pro-NPC online environment.”.

Blogging is huge in China, it’s a problem for the government which has blocked most overseas weblog hosting sites, but now it’s cracking down on Chinese blogs, especially those who don’t have nice things to say about China.  For example, take the story of AIDS-activist Hu Jia, his wife Zeng Jinyan and her 2-month old baby Hu Qianci, all of whom are currently under house arrest.  What’s interesting about this guy is that while under the eyes of the police and other public security officials, he’s managed to blog, post photos, make podcasts and even make a documentary film about his family’s life in “Bo Bo Freedom City”.

Their story is intertwined with the internet, Hu was actually arrested while in the middle of a Skype conversation, and the film he made is distributed (albeit without his permission) on Youtube, and the last of his podcasts have been uploaded to the internet.  His blog was blocked, but another websites (subsequently blocked) appeared, his wife’s website was filtered, and then another fansite appeared.  Since Hu’s arrest on subversion charges, although it’s blocked, Zeng’s blog somehow, magically keeps updating itself.

All of this to-ing and fro-ing has managed to catch the attention, not only of English language bloggers and journalists in China, but a writer at the New York Times who has written a two page article about the housebound couple.  Interestingly, the reaction has been one of (natural) condemnation and, well, quite honestly, bemusement.  The charges against Hu are vague – the subversion of state power – and we’ll probably never really know why he’s been arrested.  All we do know is that anyone who causes trouble – and any parent will tell you the amount of political turmoil a 2 month old baby can wreak on your life – is being silenced before the Olympic Games.  When he was dragged away on the 27th December, hu joined the 51 other online dissidents that have been slung into the slammer, and his website joins the 2500 other websites that have also apparently been subverting state power, or criticising, or disagreeing or something.

The one thing that is more annoying that anything else, and which drew me to my previous story about Lou Ye and Fang Li’s entanglements with the government film, TV and radio censor is that no one from the government tells people why they are being arrested.  There’s an assumption by the CCP that everyone on China – all 1.3 billion of them – knows how to behave and what they need to do to toe the government line.  With Hu Jia, it’s got to the point where people don’t believe the authorities anymore, his supporters have asked after his health (his condition is reportedly “normal”), but they want a lawyer to go in a see him to make sure that they are telling the truth.  The situation has been exacerbated by the fact that the police have refused to take Hu any of his prescription drugs to him, wherever he’s being held.

The video mobile phone is a big problem for the Chinese government.  As Beijing blogger Imagetheif remarked “no matter how China tries to control Olympic related news and imagery, anyone with a cell-phone will be a journalist come August.”.  The now legendary video of Hu Ziwei splitting up with her husband Zhang Bin at a CCTV5 press conference prompted a rushed law that means any video hosting site in China has to have a special license.  Licensing and blocking can only go so far, however, Frustratingly for the mandarins at The Great Firewall of China, a lot of websites aren’t actually hosted in the country, and are therefore outside the Chinese sphere of influence.  All they can do is block, and even that system looks like it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be either.

The whole point of the Great Firewall, or the Golden Shield as it’s known on the mainland, is to protect citizens from objectionable international online content.  The project, is of course, shrouded in secrecy, but due to the nature of the internet infrastructure, it’s possible to learn about it through empirical analysis, which basically means poking it with a stick.

ConceptDoppler is a project established by computer scientists at the University of New Mexico, which is essentially looking for what keywords are being blocked by the Golden Shield, using an algorithm called Latent Semantic Analysis, which uses words and related words to test a firewall or filtering system.  The idea is that understanding the how the ideas and the words related to the
ideas are filtered, then there will be a better understanding of how a government filters the Internet for it’s citizens – and let’s face it, the Chinese government isn’t exactly offering white papers on it’s filtering technology.

The initial findings of ConceptDoppler are surprising to say the least.  Along with the normal words that you would expect to find blocked (democracy, massacre, etc) there are some quite unusual ones too.  A search for Hitler’s Mein Kampf is blocked, another search term for “conversion rate” is also blocked.  The other surprise was that the firewall isn’t like a wall, it’s more of a chain-link fence.  A lot of the words managed to get through to the mainland, although these rogue words were trapped by routers deeper in the Chinese Internet.  It seems that bombarding the Shield with terms, especially at time when Internet traffic is at it’s peak allows some search terms to get through, in fact, banned words get through 28% of the time.
The conclusions that the team has come to is that the Chinese government rattles is sabre to keep the masses in line.  The firewall doesn’t need to catch all the search terms entered into Google, just some of them.  Just enough of them need to be caught before people learn that there’s no point searching for them anymore, and stop searching.

Another strategy that researchers discovered was that it’s possible to circumvent the net censor altogether, simply by telling the two computers that want to talk to each other to ignore the messages that they are receiving from the Chinese filters.

When a search term or a page is loaded from a server to your computer, and it passes through the GFW, if there is questionable content in the page, then both your computer and the computer you are connected to will receive “reset packets”, which effectively close your connection for you.  If the two computers are set up to ignore reset packets, then the information will get through, say, from Wikipedia’s server in California to my laptop here in Beijing.  Richard Clayton and his team at the University of Cambridge has done experiments using this theory, and apparently things work pretty well.

For the first time in a long time, Chinese people have a chance to have their voices heard.  Blogging is big in China, well-wishers and supporters gather outside Bo Bo Freedom City, trying to take baby formula into the house, and they wonder what will become of the man who once took part in an EU hearing about human rights.

The Golden Shield is regarded by the CPP as it’s most effective tool in maintaining political power, and repeatedly, it has been shown that it doesn’t work.  When the firewall doesn’t work, they arrest the subversives and tarnish their international image even further.  Given that the CCP has spent an estimated $800 million just to get the thing up and running, and the costs of upgrading and maintaining new hardware and software means that the cost of the biggest white elephant in China will continue to rise, and it’s usefulness will plummet.

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