What does China censor online?

January 28, 2010 at 4:37 am 5 comments

With Google slugging it out with the Chinese Government, I wondered what websites or keywords China actually censors. A spot of research and voilà, I found this nifty visual of the Great Firewall of China.

You can view a larger visual here (and I’m sure this website will be added to the black list). The visual shows censored sites and search terms the Chinese want to keep hidden from their citizens, stuff like Democracy, Oppression, Tiananmen Square, Falungong, persecution, independence. God forbid Chinese citizens ever encountering these words!

But look more closely – what else do you see? Seems the Chinese have something against LOLCats because the imageboard website, 4chan, is banned. Some say that LOLCats originated on 4chan. The BBC is shafted, along with usa.gov and Facebook. The Pope and the Vatican are banned and Disney is given the heave-ho. Yeah, don’t let little Chinese kids catch sight of Bambi or Cinderella – that could wreck them forever.

If we see the Internet as a catalyst for political change, then in their minds, the Chinese Government needs the defense of a Great Wall to keep out the gwailos or foreign devils.  They fear that online activism could move onto the streets.

Of course, I do find the American carry-on about free speech somewhat amusing – given the penchant for warrantless wiretapping that goes on in the US.

It’s the ultimate battle really – the US, which believes in free speech and constitutionally guarantees it; and an inward looking country that believes censorship is all legal, no problem. Check out this article in Xinhua for the Chinese perspective.

An interesting argument I’ve seen recently is that the US could take on China by filing a complaint with the World Trade Organisation.  The argument goes like this: China is a member of the WTO and is in breach of international trade rules. The Chinese firewall is an illegal restraint on international trade because it bars foreign companies from competing in the Chinese market (nearly 400 million users) via the internet.

So there could be a WTO discrimination claim, for example, because China imposes harsher filters and restrictions on Google (a foreign service) than Baidu and this would be contrary to its commitments under the General Agreement on Trade in Services (Gats).

Now this could shape up to be an interesting cat fight. The WTO has ruled against China several times, the latest being a ruling against  an appeal by China in a dispute over its restrictions on the distribution of US printed books, films and music. But how would the WTO classify a search engine?

I guess it would be a smart way for the US to go if it takes on China via the legal processes of the WTO. A direct confrontation with China would be avoided and neither the US nor China would need to argue the higher moral ground of freedom of speech.

UPDATE: Interesting article from WSJ on the history of information control in China.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Baoman  |  January 28, 2010 at 9:40 am

    Google’s Privacy Principals may be of some interest to your readers. http://tinyurl.com/y9sjt47

    China did a very clever thing when they changed to ‘simplified characters’ because that means most people can only easily read websites from mainland China and Singapore.

    What is most interesting about the Great Fire Wall of China is that it works pretty well. It can be circumvented but many Chinese just don’t bother and are happy enough with the results they get from websites in China because they aren’t interested in traditional Chinese character websites or foreign language websites.

    Reply
  • 2. thinkingshift  |  January 28, 2010 at 10:20 pm

    interesting Baoman…I read that Chinese were getting around the firewall via VPN but didn’t know about the simplified characters. Mind boggling to think about how a country with some 400 million users doesn’t get all the information that the West gets.

    Reply
  • 3. creativespark  |  January 29, 2010 at 1:57 am

    I was in Shanghai last year and here’s a confusing thing…

    The internet at the hotel I was staying at blocked WordPress and Facebook. No way around it, just couldn’t get there. I can’t remember what the error message was, but it was the equivalent of “this is a blocked site”.

    Yet apparently not all ISPs blocked it… or ISPs didn’t block it for all locations. My partner went to his local office to do some work and he had no problems getting in from there.

    Perhaps because it was a hotel full of foreigners?

    No idea, but it’s puzzled me ever since.

    =) M

    Reply
  • 4. thinkingshift  |  January 29, 2010 at 3:34 am

    possibly Marc – I read somewhere that during the Olympics in Beijing, hotel computers or internat cafe computers used by foreigners had all website available. So the message was taken back by them that China doesn’t censor.

    Perhaps Baoman can give us an answer but sounds like you’re right Marc – hotel full of foreigners = blocked sites.

    Reply
    • 5. Baoman  |  January 31, 2010 at 8:58 am

      The Chinese fire wall is not aimed at foreigners in hotels so I’m not sure why the WordPress and Facebook sites were blocked from a hotel. My experience at 5-star hotels in China is the opposite, the web is completely open from them. However, I have heard this story that the same site will be blocked by one ISP and not by another ISP. Censorship is a complex task so this is not too surprising.

      The Chinese firewall can target hotels and foreign compounds when they authorities think there are specific reasons to censor information. The level of control can be quite specific so maybe there was someone at the hotel, a journalist perhaps, who had raised alarms among the local censors and government officials.

      Reply

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