Far Eastern Economic Review: Govt Exerts More Control As More Chinese Go On-Line

September 18, 2002

CHINA IS ON A renewed push to shore up the cyber curtain. The state censors' successful blocking of Google.com and other Internet search engines earlier this month provoked a firestorm of criticism at home and abroad even as Yahoo.com and others were throwing Web principles out of the window and signing on to authoritarian censorship. In July, Yahoo agreed to a government-sponsored voluntary "Public Pledge on Self-Discipline for the China Internet Industry." Yahoo said it was merely conforming to local laws.

These moves come as Beijing aims to prevent groups like the Falun Gong spiritual movement and others it views as enemies from spreading their word by the Web. To date these groups have managed to frustrate the authorities' restrictions and get their message across to Chinese Web users.

Now Beijing has upped the ante. The authorities' latest efforts to control the free flow of information rely on souped-up versions of corporate firewalls, experts believe. "Typically they are re-purposing corporate-security software," says Michael Robinson, chief technical officer of Beijing-based Clarity Data Systems.

It's a form of Internet arms race that is likely to spiral into higher levels of technology as more Chinese get on-line. This level of censorship does not come cheaply. "The costs, including training personnel, equipment and maintenance could run into tens of millions of U.S. dollars," says Duncan Clarke who heads BDA, an Internet consultancy in Beijing. That cost could rise into the hundreds of millions of dollars as the number of China's Internet users continues to grow, believes Clarke.

The secretive nature of the communist regime makes it difficult to determine how far China will take its Internet restrictions. The authorities in Beijing have eased their restrictions on Google, but have made no comment on a subject that created headlines around the world.

Cyber censorship is nothing new in China. For more than a year, Internet cafes across the country have been forced to keep records of all users for a 90-day period and install their own in-house filters. Until the recent tightening, censors barred access to Web sites deemed offensive to Beijing. Then, earlier this month, they blocked access to search engines like Google.com and Altavista.com. Now, it appears the censors are allowing users to reach these Web sites but are using a system called packet filtering to sweep content and even e-mails. Offending pages and e-mails can be blocked or monitored.

So what are the state censors using? Experts believe it's a scanning technology that works on the same principles as Microsoft's Proxy Server 2.0, or other corporate-firewall software. It has the ability to block access to sites and can scan Web pages for downloadable viruses. It can also maintain a record of virus "signatures" and scan new Web pages for them. If it detects a virus it blocks access.

"With a little bit of imagination, you can see how this technique could be modified to block politically sensitive content," says Robinson.

Two contradictory trends are now obvious in China: Beijing is engaged in a determined effort to upgrade its influence over the Web content Chinese people see. At the same time, more people than ever can log on and nobody doubts that the Communist Party sees the Internet as a key tool in China's modernization.

According to a report in the state-run China Daily in July, there were over 16 million computers with access to the Web in China and more than 125,000 Internet-domain names using the country's .cn suffix. Official figures also showed that Web users increased by one-third to almost 46 million. "The permitted level of access has been increasing, but so too has the government's capability to control it," says Robinson.

[.] A random series of tests conducted on http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/filtering/china/test, a Web site set up by two Harvard academics to try to ascertain which sites are banned in China, revealed mixed results. Sites owned by Falun Gong, Playboy, Amnesty International and Tibetan activists were unobtainable.[.]

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