The Internet in China is filtered. This fact is found nowhere in Chinese newspapers, because the newspapers they read are filtered, too. Chinese citizens know about filtering only through gossip, or they put two and two together while surfing the Web and discover that certain sensitive Web sites are consistently reported to be unavailable on the otherwise-functioning network. Outside China, of course, anyone curious about the nation’s Internet filtering practices can search for and then visit the Web site of a journal, such as this one, and learn the facts in more detail, in large part thanks to journalists who cover China from abroad.

As part of a project documenting Internet filtering worldwide, the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School explored and analyzed the situation in China. (A report is at, offering specifics as of late 2002.) We found a range of sites covering dozens of topical categories to be filtered, including dissident and democracy sites, sites covering public health and HIV, sites about religion, Tibet, Taiwan and the home pages of many institutions of higher learning around the world.

Within this expansive range, what stands out as perhaps the primary target of filtering in China, apart from pornography, are sites involving news. China regularly blocks the online homes of the BBC, CNN, Time, PBS, The Miami Herald, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. In our testing of Google’s top 100 results for news in 2002, we found that 42 were blocked. Some sites, like those for The Washington Post and Reuters, were wholly blocked for several days and then consistently available for days at a time, perhaps reflecting the fact that the censors read the early edition of the paper and then choose whether to block the paper’s site for awhile. Since 2002, China has experimented with more subtle filtering technologies. Rather than blocking entire sites, pages containing certain sensitive terms might cease loading for a Chinese Internet user midway through the display—followed by a limiting of overall Internet access for that user for minutes or hours.

During the Berkman Center’s study of Internet filters, the authors simulated access to as would have been experienced by ordinary users in Beijing at that time. The results, including the screen shot above, showed techniques the Chinese used to prevent access.

Accepting Foreign Censorship

It’s not a surprise that China’s filtering would pay particular attention to news. And it is possible that Western news organizations consider it a badge of honor to be filtered in China and in other countries that censor the Net. But pride in being among the censored shouldn’t alone be enough reward for solid news reporting. News organizations should think it fundamental to their mission to ensure that their work reaches all those who wish to see it, despite government meddling.

Such issues confront our academic enterprise in studying filtering. The Berkman Center’s report on Chinese filtering was promptly blocked in China. We thought it simply further evidence of the importance the government attaches to alacritous Internet filtering and noted as much when discussing the report. I didn’t think further about the issue until we began to expand our filtering research, thanks to separate grants from the MacArthur Foundation and the Open Society Institute. The latter’s grant has been used to found the “OpenNet Initiative,” a collaboration among the Berkman Center, the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, and the Advanced Network Research Group at Cambridge University.

As we gathered with our counterparts at the other universities to begin coordinating our efforts, we realized there were differing views about the aims of the project. In my view, our agenda was to use some technically sophisticated Internet footwork to remotely ferret out information about filtering in places where it would be difficult or even dangerous to do the work on location. In essence, we were to probe other countries’ firewalls from the safety of our own offices and then report what was found through a standardized process, such as an interactive digital map of what nations are filtering what content. Then the team could turn to more sophisticated analyses of the data in hand, such as correlating particular instances of filtering with stated shifts in substantive government policies and closely tracking shifts in filtering targets and technologies over time.

Our colleagues had perhaps a more activist view: They’d begun thoroughly documenting the means of faraway users’ circumvention of Internet filtering and were developing technologies to assist such circumvention. A handful of activist hackers and others had already entered the cat-and-mouse game of helping users bypass government Internet filters through proxy services. For example, a Chinese Internet user unable to reach a given Web site could visit a low-key willing proxy and request that the proxy fetch and retrieve the banned page. A number of such digital intermediaries to those in need have emerged with mixed success and longevity, including the open source Freenet and a brief CIA-funded venture called Triangle Boy. Another ongoing service offered through the U.S. government’s Voice of America (VOA) Web is intended for Iranian citizens only. As part of offering a service to Iranians to bypass their ISP’s filtering, the VOA itself filters sites deemed to be pornographic—including many that are patently not.

Within our newly merged research team, we considered whether if we joined these haphazard circumvention efforts, we would ourselves be crossing a professional line that journalists know all too well. It is one thing to be in the midst of a story, to record it and as faithfully as possible retell it to the readers back home; it is entirely another to affect the story itself.

Our questions about the proper dimensions of our research thus parallel the concerns of journalists who wish to observe and publish without participating. Journalists struggle daily with maintaining neutrality in their reporting and, as a close corollary, noninterference in the subjects studied. Yet reporters have little hesitance in becoming part of the story when their work or sources are imperiled. Journalists have been known to work undercover and have been willing to go to jail to protect the identities of whistleblowers who have trusted them to keep their identities secret.

Although these battles may be rare, news organizations seem far more willing to fight about their right to gather news for a story—and protect the sources who help them gather it—than they are willing to battle for the right to widely publish the results. News organizations forcefully defend their out-put—the right to publish—typically only at those times when a story might be prohibited from being told anywhere.

The court battle by The New York Times to publish the Pentagon Papers is an example of fighting within the court system for the right to publish on the Times’s own territory, but it is joined by many more instances of a failure to fight or even appear concerned about censorship.

  • Foreign newspapers, for example, respected a Canadian ban on publishing there even the most basic information about the high-profile murder trial of Karla Homolka, the wife and accomplice of serial rapist and murderer, Paul Bernardo.
  • In 1986, Malaysia banned the Asian edition of The Wall Street Journal after articles that covered sensitive financial and political matters were found within.
  • During the 1980’s, Singapore limited Time’s circulation after it failed to quickly print a letter to the editor from the prime minister’s press secretary claiming errors in the magazine’s coverage of the country.
  • In 2000, Newsweek hadn’t even realized at first that Bangladesh had banned and confiscated its print run because of the magazine’s article about women and Islam. (“As far as we are concerned, we have distributed it as per normal,” a Newsweek official lamely told Agence France-Presse.)
  • And in 2002 The Economist agreed to withhold its weekly print run from Thailand after the government objected to an article about the future of the country’s monarchy.

For these actions and reactions, it would seem that each of these publications need consider themselves free only within their countries of origin, or perhaps in the West—leaving distribution elsewhere, even when the topical material in the publications is specifically about faraway regions, to the vicissitudes of local government edicts.

Is Internet Censorship Worth Fighting?

Censorship of traditional media that happens within the countries who routinely censor seems to be accepted as a fact of life by print publishers and by broadcasters, too. Accepting such censorship might be necessary when delivery trucks, physical broadcast towers, and other  in-country support are needed to get physical goods or radio or television programs to willing consumers.

But Internet publishing is different. It offers a much more open field and a staggering opportunity for the distribution of information of importance to the global community. To be sure, such freedom is not automatic—it’s an Internet trend that can be fought and largely defeated in the first round by assiduous government filtering or surveillance of citizens’ surfing. During the past four years, there has been clever and sustained  research into countermeasures against third-party interference in Internet communications. This research has helped users to maintain networked communications even when powerful governments  or  corporations  are overtly hostile to the exchange. It has been conducted and its fruits deployed largely by teenagers who want to share copyrighted music with one another without paying for it. The Western media has covered this peer-to-peer story with great interest, yet they have not appeared to realize that these peer-to-peer technologies can offer the potential to de-censor the news for more than a billion people.

Major Western news organizations ought to consider joining—indeed, dominating—the Internet cat-and-mouse game against censors, thereby trying to get their news into China without blockage or adulteration. Of course, news organizations are operated as businesses, and defying powerful governments can be understandably bad for business strategies. This might account for why there has been so little rebellion or even complaint when governments have threatened publishers in the past; publishers have typically bent over backwards to apologize for individual transgressions.

Think about how many more people a news organization could reach if it worked to circumvent Internet filtering from its side, instead of requiring that those trying to get to news figure out ways to reach blocked sites on their own. It might even be that, as a business matter, such illicit digital circulation would help a news organization establish its market in China, in the not-implausible likelihood that the government’s repressive policies eventually recede, whether through a gradual liberalization or through a change in regime.

There are millions of people in China who cannot get to a real newsstand and whose secret police have license to vet their mail before delivering it. Many crave the sublime privilege of reading news collected by journalists rather than propagandists. They have Internet access, but they are behind their nation’s firewall. Some dare to lose that access—or possibly much more— by circumventing the blocks they encounter. The free news establishment should take it upon itself to meet them halfway or more.

Well before Napster existed, academics such as Lorrie Faith Cranor mapped out the shape of potential networks with lofty names like “Publius,” through which unpopular views could be circulated outside of government control. Another team of computer scientists has created a project called “LOCKSS,” designing networked systems that can retain mirrored copies of documents and detect corruption or forgery among them, perhaps to preserve the integrity of our written histories for centuries. (Interestingly, two Chinese libraries are participating in the project.)

Though these networks exist in and for the realm of academics, those who are members of the global free press should strive to collectively commission the construction of such places where news reporting can run free and unchanged from its authors’ pens, available to anyone with an Internet connection. Building such a network within the Internet could be far cheaper than constructing even one printing plant. We should consider the front pages of nations’ newspapers to be precious documents, to be replicated and shared throughout the world, especially in the areas where the paper copy cannot be stocked and the electronic copy is casually blocked.

It’s time to greatly expand the paper route—and thanks to the Internet, the risks in doing so are merely business ones, thus calculable and manageable as such. They pale in comparison to the risks taken by genuinely brave reporters who travel war zones around the world to bring us the story and to the risks taken by the dissidents and sensitive sources who whisper the secrets we find on the front page. Putting that page on a filtered Web site should be only the beginning; it’s time to circulate that page everywhere.

Jonathan Zittrain is a cofounder of Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and the Jack N. and Lillian R. Berkman Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard Law School.

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