“Is Internet censorship worth fighting?,” Jonathan Zittrain asks in his article, “China and Internet Filters,” in the Summer edition of Nieman Reports. While the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, which Zittrain helped to create, has done important work in documenting how China’s filtering and blocking technology work to regulate the flow of certain information, this article gives a misleading impression of how this situation is playing out in China today.
Unlike what Zittrain suggests, daily Internet experiences in China are not substantially hampered by the technological features used as censoring devices. Older URL-blocks can be easily circumvented. In fact, learning how to do this is one the first things university students in China do when they go online, and they do this for a very practical reason: unless they find ways to circumvent the “financial block” they will be forced to pay one renminbi per hour (the equivalent of 12 cents) to surf the Internet.
When the Chinese government instituted a new censorship system of Internet filters in the summer of 2002, it caused so much economic damage that it had to be toned down, which meant that in reality the filters blocked very little. The way the system worked was to automatically disconnect the user for half an hour whenever it noticed a banned word. This system also applied to e-mail, so even a minor e-mail offensive by, for example, the banned religious group Falun Gong, could bring the whole Internet to a standstill. From the Chinese perspective, such an occurrence would be counterproductive. So after about a month and a half of this attempt at censorship, we no longer noticed filters except during short times around sessions of the National People’s Congress and the anniversary of Tiananmen Square.
Now, unlike two years ago, I can’t find any banned English words, and in Chinese such words are easily circumvented by using one of that language’s many homonyms. A valuable lesson I find in this is the failure of technology to control the Internet. However, the Internet remains very much a technologically driven industry in which the fallibility of its engineering is still not a much-discussed subject.
Internet censorship in China is something that must be put in a broader context of all that is happening in this country. Changes in policies, like a recent fling into banning service providers that host Weblogs, indicate trends that are well worth watching, and that is the value the Berkman Center brings in its ongoing efforts to document these activities. But how these Internet policies impact the daily life of most Chinese citizens, just as in the case with so many other regulations in China, is rather marginal. Asking media companies to flock to the barricades in a fight against such Internet blocks might therefore not be that effective.