Posts tagged ‘internet censorship’

What does China censor online?

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 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.


January 28, 2010 at 4:37 am 5 comments

Dancing with the dragon


Image: A Chinese outside Google's China headquarters in Beijing

No doubt you’ve been reading about the fracas going on between Google and the Chinese Government. If not, go here for a quick run-down.

What are the Chinese after I wonder. Is it just hacking into the Gmail accounts of Chinese human-rights activists? Or are they after something far juicier like Google’s immense databases and archives and all the information about you and me?

Professor Roger Clarke (Australian consultant and advisor on privacy and dataveillance issues) was interviewed in Crikey and I found what he had to say about Google a bit chilling:

“It’s got all of your search-terms. And it’s got what you clicked on while you’ve been on Google pages. It’s got a list of pretty much every ad you ever clicked on. It’s got any emails that you sent to Gmail users. It’s got what people sent to you from Gmail accounts. It’s got the correspondence that you exchanged with people who, unbeknown to you, flush all of their mail from other accounts through Gmail. It’s got every posting that you’ve sent, since about 2004, to every email-list that you’re on (because at least one person on every list uses Gmail). All of that data is directly related to you because of the email-addresses, IP-addresses and personal names contained in all of that traffic.

That’s reinforced by its use of your email-address as your login id for Google services, and a suite of cookies that are common across all services. If you’re a Google addict, it may also have every location that you ever typed into Google Maps, and every Streetview you ever displayed. And you may have even gifted it your photo collection, and a copy of your own disk-files.

So Google is in a position to mine from its holdings: your online behaviour; your economic and social interests, your political views, your network of contacts and your close associates”.

So what’s the drama you say? Well, what happens when all this juicy data about you falls into the hands of an authoritarian government? Think about that for a moment.

I would applaud Google for threatening to shut down their operations in China and refusing to continue with self-censorship if I thought they were doing so by taking a stand on censorship or human rights violation.  I’ve always thought Google was in violation of  Article 19 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights by censoring searches or blocking websites to keep the Chinese dudes happy. Google isn’t admitting that their hissy fit goes beyond the suggestion that Chinese hackers attacked Gmail accounts of human rights activists. But why the hissy fit now when Google’s been dancing with the Chinese and self-censoring for a few years ? Why the sudden throwing down of the gauntlet to the Chinese over censorship and cyber attacks? I’m sure Google hasn’t just woken up to the fact that they were dealing with the Chinese and not the neutral Swiss!

There are mutterings that Google is using cyber-terrorism and censorship as a smokescreen to get the hell out of China and extract itself from business failings there.  The Chinese market is dominated by the search giant, Baidu, with Google only having a 30% share of China’s $1 billion search market.

Is Google really living up to its “don’t be evil” motto by going up against the Chinese dragon? Does it really believe that the Chinese government will bow down to a US company?

Call me cynical but I think with questions being asked about Google’s plans to digitise millions of books; Google being criticised in several European countries over Street View and invasion of privacy; and data security concerns over its cloud computing apps – well, frankly Google could do with a good news story of being seen to take the high moral ground. It will be interesting to see how this plays out for Google and what will it mean for US-China relations?

January 15, 2010 at 2:00 am 2 comments

Will I be living in China in 2010?

Dear international reader. Here is a question for you: what do Egypt, Iran, China, North Korea, Burma, Saudi Arabia and Australia have in common? Let’s guess. Deserts? Well, Australia has the Gibson desert; Iran has the Kavir desert; China has the Gobi desert; Egypt has the Sahara but North Korea and Burma? Nah, no deserts.  Mmmmmm…what else could these countries have in common? Similar coloured national flags? Nah. Are they all democracies? Last time I looked, North Korea is a dictatorship and Burma (or Myanmar) has been struggling since 1948 to establish a modern democratic political system.

Oh no, wait. I know what these countries all have in common: INTERNET CENSORSHIP. It’s taken me nearly a week to calm down following the Australian Federal Government’s announcement that it will proceed in 2010 with a MANDATORY internet censorship scheme. Now, international reader – you may have thought Australia was a democracy in which we could freely access information. Wrong. As of mid- 2010, we will be a country that:

  • has a secret black list of internet sites banned by the Government of Australia
  • forces ISPs to filter internet traffic and block any material deemed unsuitable or inappropriate
  • possibly blocks innocent or legitimate sites (I suspect that the TS blog might get itself blocked for this very post alone)

The so-called Clean Feed programme is designed to block any material or websites that feature child sex abuse, sexual violence, adult content and instructions on crime. But in March 2009, the proposed blacklist was leaked and showed that banned sites go far beyond kid porn or violence. The list included links to poker sites, YouTube, gay and straight porn sites, Wikipedia, euthanasia sites, fringe religions, fetish sites, Christian sites, a tour operator and a Queensland dentist.

Let me get something straight before I continue. It is important to protect kids from creepy pedophiles and whackos. Last time I looked though, this was the job of parents and family (like this). When I was growing up, there was no Internet but there was “stranger danger”, there were pedophiles and whackos. I was warned not to get in a car with strangers or talk to strangers. Okay, so the Internet makes it easier for kids to innocently connect with whackos or for whackos to seek them out. But IMHO the job of parents is to “police” kids’ access to the internet and instil common sense into kids. So why isn’t the Clean Feed scheme an opt-in one – parents can choose to participate in the Government’s internet censorship if they wish. Also, I think the Government might find that pedophiles and creepy types tend to hang out in chat rooms and conduct conversations via Skype or email – will these be blocked as well?

I have some real fears about this internet censorship proposal. Firstly, who the heck will make the decision to block a site? We live under the Rule of Law in Australia (well, maybe no more) – so shouldn’t the judicial system make the decision to block a site rather than some petty, invisible public servant? Then I ask: has the electorate been consulted on this, you know, the AUSTRALIAN PEOPLE?? Will the blocking and filtering slow down our access to the Internet (what little we are allowed to access that is)? I read somewhere that it could slow down internet access by as much as 87%.

I’d also ask: what exactly does “inappropriate” mean? Is it inappropriate to have access to sites on euthanasia for example? The invisible bureaucrat might consider it inappropriate and whack it on the banned list but you or I might consider that it is our democratic right to have access to material on euthanasia. Whether we read it or not isn’t the issue.

Will a blog that questions the cost or effectiveness of the clean feed be blocked? Will I  get access to material on Christian Science? My dad was a Christian Scientist and my grandmother was a CS practitioner. Some people believe CS is a cult and since the leaked list of banned sites referred to “fringe religions”, does this mean CS sites will be blocked?  I don’t practise CS and I very rarely read anything on Christian Science but it is my right to have access to this material should I choose. It is not for some nanny state to tell me what I can and can’t follow in the way of religion.

I am a taxpayer in Australia (and I pay high taxes let me tell you). I have a right to know the following:

  • why hasn’t there been transparency around the year-long tests being conducted with ISPs, particularly around the results?
  • what is the exact mechanism for filtering – by keyword, by URL?
  • will chat rooms (where I believe whackos tend to hang out) also be banned? what about Skype or email?
  • why is the proposed banned list secret squirrel?
  • why hasn’t Stephen Conroy (Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy) engaged in true debate on this issue of censorship? I’ve seen him on TV, hitting back at his critics by calling them defenders of child pornography and carrying on about how internet censorship will help protect the children. This is a simplistic defense because the proposed clean feed has serious implications around press freedom and for ISPs (consider this as an example: an ISP’s filter doesn’t work and some creepy dude indulges in some kiddy porn or abuse. Will the ISP be held legally responsible or charged along with the creepy dude?)
  • what is the cost of this censorship? I have read it’s AU$44 million. And how easy do you think this filtering system will be to bypass?
  • have you thought about how industry will react (considering no doubt that many legitimate websites will be caught up in this whacko filtering scheme). Will Australia continue to be competitive, innovative?
  • Conroy might want to remember this name: Tom Wood. Wood was the 16 year old who, in 2007, took just 30 minutes to hack into Australia’s $84 million porn filter. Kids who have grown up with the internet will devise ways to get around a clean feed, I would bet on it.
  • and lastly, I would ask our Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, to spend some time reflecting on the meaning of democracy and answer this question: Is internet censorship compatible with democracy?

Meanwhile, please sign the petition against the censorship scheme. Even Google (who you know I rant about from time to time) has expressed its concern over the Australian Government’s plans to introduce a mandatory filtering regime for Internet Service Providers saying the scheme would be “.. the first of its kind amongst western democracies”.  And Reporters Without Borders has written an open letter to Rudd, which you can read here.

This is simply an embarrassment for Australia. I am hoping the Australian people will challenge this mandatory scheme but I fear that our apolitical nature (along with our preference for only ever getting worked up into a lather over sport) will mean in 2010 Australia will have its very own Berlin Wall. RIP Australian democracy.

December 24, 2009 at 12:31 am Leave a comment

China’s war against free speech

You may have read that this week that the Chinese Government blocked Twitter, Flickr and other sites such as YouTube and Bing. This was to stop any form of discussion about the 20th anniversary of democracy protests in Tiananmen Square. The repression continued when Wu Gaoxing (a dissident jailed for his part in the Tiananmen movement) was hauled off last week by Chinese authorities and his computer confiscated. His crime?  Writing a letter claiming that some of the dissidents involved in the Tiananmen movement had been singled out for economic hardship over the last 20 years.

Yahoo! got it right when they said in response to the blocking:

We understand the Chinese government is blocking access to Flickr and other international sites, though the government has not issued any explanation. We believe a broad restriction without a legal basis is inconsistent with the right to freedom of expression.”

I’m not sure if other search engine companies or social networking sites spoke out publicly against such blatant censorship by the Chinese.

I tasted a bit of this repression. With two other women, I am involved in fiction writing – we are writing a novel collaboratively. One woman is in Texas, the other woman (an American) is in China. This week she was blocked from the site we use for our writing. What amazed me was the speed with which those outside China came to the aid of those behind the repressive wall. Within hours, a help forum on the site had offered suggestions on how to use proxy servers, VPNs and access codes to bypass the blocking.  I used Herdict to get a real-time report on web accessbility in China (this site’s name is a combination of “herd” and “verdict” and tracks which sites are down or blocked on the internet).

Meanwhile, my writing companion sent this email (she had intermittent email access):

“The country I live in has blocked Flickr and other public forums because the 20th anniversary of a dark dark event is tomorrow. I’m trying to get around with proxy servers. I urge everyone who lives in a country with freedom of media, speech and assembly to take some time and consciously experience some gratitude for this condition. All hail governments not based on fear and control.”

But China’s efforts to erase the memory of the Tiananmen Square massacre only helps attract attention to that dark event. We will not forget what happened.  Here are some great links to remind us:

  • an Op-Ed from the NY Times featuring four writers, who were students or working at the time, reflecting on Tiananmen Square.
  • China’s Forgotten Revolution by Yu Hua.  The author says: “.. after the summer of 1989 the incident vanished from the Chinese news media. As a result, few young Chinese know anything about it.”
  • the reflections of a Chinese student and a foreign correspondent (ABC radio transcript)
  • Voice of America editorial.
  • Wall Street Journal Asia on Tiananmen and democracy
  • Wall Street Journal – US asks China to account for Tiananmen deaths.
  • Time magazine 1998 article “The Unknown Rebel”, which recognised the brave man in front of the tanks as one of the 100 most important people of the 20th Century.

On Twitter, a Chinese user, Junde, created a cartoon showing the Twitter bird gagged and in the clutches of a crab’s claw (I read somewhere that the crab is a symbol for censorship used by Chinese with access to the internet).

My friend, still beind the repressive firewall, sent me photos with captions such as the one below and the photo accompanying this blog post:

China in many ways is very different from 20 years ago. It has made enormous progress economically. But if it is to be a global leader, IMHO China needs to examine this dark phase of its history instead of trying to erase the collective memories of its people and blocking its netizens from internet sites.  20 years on, prisoners are still being detained for their involvement in Tiananmen Square. There should be a public accounting for those responsible and China should be allowed to publicly mourn for the many who were killed or arrested.

I leave you today with the words of my friend in China:

“Today, on the 20th anniversary of the events the government is still holding from its people, I see that the Chinese use of “outside” is perfectly correct in this country. At this time, more than any other in my nine years in China, I am “inside” China. I am inside China the same way that something can be put inside a box. I am inside China the way my class is inside the classroom. I am inside China the way a person can be put inside a jail.

The Chinese, in using English, refer to the time when Deng Xiaoping came to power and invited relationships with other countries after more than thirty years of isolation as “When China opened its doors”. I have always felt that this term, along with “inside”, as slightly antique and faulty use of the English language. Today in China’s media crack-down, I stand corrected. China has again closed its doors. The more than 50,000 Internet Police have slammed them shut, blocking the online public forums, including Twitter, YouTube, Bing, Opera, WordPress, Blogger and Flickr”.

June 6, 2009 at 2:00 am 2 comments

Is Australia China?

Kim photo incenseIt’s taken me a couple of days to get over the staggering news that quite possibly Australia is facing a future of internet censorship at the hands of the Federal Police. I wanted to wait and see if the news wasn’t as bad as it first seemed.

Of course, I’m referring to the news in The Australian that a Bill was (it seems) hurriedly and quietly ushered into Parliament at 9.58am September 22. The proposed legislation would give the Australian Federal Police (AFP) the power to block, ban or filter websites believed to be crime or terrorism related. The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) already maintains a “blacklist” of websites containing pornographic or offensive content and they have the power to act against these websites. The web ban bill will extend this blacklist by allowing the AFP to inform the ACMA of websites to be blocked. The ACMA must then notify ISPs who will be required to take reasonable steps to prevent users accessing the websites.

I find this staggering for a few reasons:

  • a democratic country (well, last time I looked anyway) like Australia is censoring the internet? China dabbles in internet censorship and has erected the Great Firewall of China – is Australia erecting its own wall now?
  • is the Government delegating censorship and regulation to the communications industry? The burden of policing and regulating would no doubt be passed onto the consumer.

Greens Senator Kerry Nettle said the Bill would give the Police Commissioner “enormous power over what political content Australians can look at” on the web and points out that environmental organisations like Greenpeace, who have been accused of terror-related actions in the past, could potentially have their website blocked or shut down.

It seems the Bill was hussled through Senate without warning on the eve of a Federal Election – which for me raises the question of just how far the Government will go in their attempts to control internet content.

Perhaps next up, we’ll follow the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) efforts in recording what people read on a plane. Wired carried an article on the airport screening programme of the DHS. Their Airport Targetting System scrutinises every airline passenger entering or leaving the US and records information such as ethnic background and the answers given to US border officials regarding the reason for travel. Because the ATS is also linked up to airlines’ Passenger Name Records (which are required to be submitted to the US Government), a vast array of information is stored – destinations, phone and email details, meal requests, special health requests, payment details, frequent-flier numbers, contact numbers for overseas family members. The system also records previous customs inspection notes. So this caught John Gilmore, Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder, who took onto a plane a book entitled Drugs and Your Rights. Inspection notes on Gilmore said:
“PAX (passenger) has many small flashlights with pot leaves on them. He had a book entitled ‘Drugs and Your Rights.‘” Gilmore is apparently an advocate for marijuana legalisation.

And another inspection note said: “attended computer conference in Berlin and then traveled around Europe and Asia to visit friends. 100% baggage exam negative…. PAX is self employed ‘Entrepreneur’ in computer software business.”

DHS has now released a denial saying they are not interested in what we’re reading.

A privacy advocate said: “There is so much sensitive information in the documents that it is clear that Homeland Security is not playing straight with the American people“. No kidding! I don’t think the Australian Government is playing straight with Australians either when it hussles a Bill through Senate that is basically internet censorship.

Just to make me even more perturbed, Patrick Lambe over at Green Chameleon, alerted me to an essay written by Cory Doctorow called Scroogled. It’s a fictitious piece asking the question: what if Google controlled your life?

I’m not going to summarise it because I really want you to read it – scary as hell. And should such a future materialise (and I think it will) then I’ll be getting a knock on the door at 2.00am no doubt given the stuff I’ve written about Google on this blog and elsewhere. Thank goodness I recently read The File by Timothy Garton Ash. Ash’s experience with the Stasi might give me some clues on how to handle a world controlled by Google!

I have shamelessly ganked the photos below from the article – powerful and scary if you ask me.

(Yes, well: update – May 16 2009 – seems the image I’m referring to has been yanked. I can’t find it anywhere, just references to a jpg image that also seems to have gone AWOL, even from Doctorow’s article. Did Google get it yanked?)

Look closely at this last image – Border Crossing Immigration – brought to you by Google. In light of the airport security screening programme I mentioned above, perhaps not such a far fetched scenario. Well, actually that future is here already. You might remember that Canadian psychotherapist, Andrew Feldmar, was denied entry into the US recently because? A Google-happy border security officer Googled Feldmar’s name and found an article he’d written that described his experiences with hallucinogenic drugs during the 1960s. Hello? the 60s were 40 years ago – doesn’t mean the dude is smuggling magic mushrooms into the US now just because he dabbled in them when he was tripping out with the hippies.

I think that when I’m old and crusty (pretty soon really) I’ll be sitting down with Gen Whatever Letter and reminiscing about the good old days of privacy and no Google. They’ll look at me and wonder if I’m on magic mushrooms – because they will have been brought up in a world controlled by surveillance technologies which get you hauled over at some airport or woken up at 2.00am to answer questions about what you searched on Google last night. It will all seem very natural to them because they won’t have experienced anything different.

UPDATE: Internet industry experts warn that the proposed legislation mentioned in this post could inadvertently block access to popular sites like Facebook and slow internet speed to a snail’s pace. Read the article in The Australian.

September 24, 2007 at 3:10 am 1 comment

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