Do-it ourselves censorship

This report from Reporters Without Borders details the decision by European satellite company, Eutelsat, to stop broadcasts into Asia of an independent US based Chinese-language broadcaster NTDTV, using the dubious claim that the halt is due to a ‘technical problem’.

NTDTV includes stories on human rights issues amongst its coverage, and not surprisingly the Chinese government has condemned its material. Equally unsurprisingly, they have applied commercial and political pressure to satellite companies not to broadcast their material.

This isn’t unprecedented of course. The decision by Google to self-censor its Chinese site was cause of major controversy. There have been examples of Australian Universities receiving pressure from Chinese government officials about the holding of forums on topics such as Tibet or Falun Gong.

Rigorous censorship is no surprise (except perhaps to the IOC) coming from a totalitarian regime. What is a bigger concern is when organisations, companies and governments from other countries – especially countries that allegedly support democratic principles – exacerbate it by censoring ourselves.

As to what is happening at the moment in China itself, latest reports suggest the Chinese government has slightly relaxed the blocks on the ability of foreign journalists in Beijing to access some information on the internet.

According to ABC reporter Karen BarlowWe can access websites such as Amnesty and BBC China which were blocked before.  However we have also tested outside this building and I would say that those websites, anyone outside the venue would have great trouble getting through still today and (as for) Falun Gong, you can not get onto any of those websites anywhere in China.”

The Open Net Initiative is a collobartion between four academic institutions, which investigate and analyses Internet filtering and surveillance practices around the world. According to their latest report:

a marquee list of websites that have been tantamount to being permanently blocked by the Chinese government in recent years, including the BBC News in Chinese, the Hong-Kong based Apple Daily newspaper, Amnesty International, Radio Free Asia and even Chinese Wikipedia (http://zh.wikipedia.org), were not only accessible at Olympics venues but also for ordinary Internet subscribers in Beijing.

The abrupt about-face came only a day after the IOC confirmed filtering would be implemented at the MPC, and was announced as a joint decision of the IOC Coordination Commission and BOCOG. According to an Olympics organizer, “Internet use will be just like any Olympics.” In at least one key respect, however, these Games mark a departure, as sites relating to the Falungong spiritual movement (also known as an “evil, fake religion” in official China) and certain human rights NGOs (http://www.hrichina.org) remain inaccessible.

China’s system of tcp resets triggered by sensitive keywords also appears to be firmly in place:
– a Chinese search using the terms “Tibetan independence” on Chinese Wikipedia resulted in a tcp reset, while the same search using a proxy yielded 26 pages of results.
-a search on YouTube for “tank man,” “Tiananmen,” and “1989” resulted in a tcp reset.

Another open question is whether China’s Internet filtering practices will be transformed in the rest of the country, and for how long. For most Chinese citizens the situation appears to be more of the same–the usual strict supervision goes into hyperdrive as sensitive political events unfold. As international media focused their attention on websites hosted overseas, China has already tightened control over domestic cyberspace, such as online discussions on online forums and chat rooms. In July, more than 50 Chinese web portals have issued a joint declaration calling for Chinese Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to jointly welcome the Beijing Olympics Games by embracing a new online ethics and enhancing self-regulation of “harmful” information. In addition, operators are encouraged to shut off third-party SMS subscription and creation services for wireless value-added service providers, as well as BBS services. All major BBSs in China have been placed under supervision.

This is another indication of just how paranoid the Chinese government is about Falun Gong. I am at a loss to really understand why, but given that the site of the international Chinese NGO, Human Rights in China, also remains blocked, it could be to do with a higher sensitivity to Chinese people criticising the Chinese communist party, compared to organisations such as Amnesty International, which can be portrayed as a ‘western’ group – even though the human rights principles Amnesty campaigns on are internationally recognised as universal principles, rather than ones unique to any particular society or ideology.

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5 Comments

  1. I find all this media outcry about the Great Chinese Firewall to be
    a) Annoying
    b) Misguided
    c) Totally unhelpful

    China chooses to censor the Internet connections of people too ignorant to download Hotspot shield. The whole exercise is nothing more than a mild annoyance — Find blocked site, turn Hotspot shield on, visit blocked site.

    If the press aren’t VPN’ing back in to their offices anyway, then not being able to visit Falun Gong’s website is the least of their problems — I’d be more concerned about rival media organisations scooping my piece straight out of the air/off the wire.

    Seriously, download Hotspot shield, or Your Freedom, or Tor, or Freegate or any one of a zillion VPN clients.
    To the journos making a stink about this: Why not use your airwaves/column inches/bytes to tell people something productive: Run a 1 minute tutorial on how laughably easy it is to subvert the Great Firewall.

    *sigh*

  2. LG, I suppose the point is that the Chinese Government actually pledged not to censor the Media .. whether it is necessary for the media to have unfettered access isn’t the point, but the fact that they were promised that access is.

    I have read that publishers who arrange for books to be printed (cheaply of course) in China are finding that they are being told to remove photos of the Dalai Lama or favourable references to Tibet or their books won’t be printed by the Chinese contractors. Sounds like the Catholics of long ago, and their Index of Forbidden Books.

  3. What amazes me is that no-one has drawn a parallel between the Chinese action and that of all 3 of Australia’s last Comms Ministers (Alston, Coonan, Conroy) from trying to inflict an internet censorship regime here.

    Of course that was about protecting the kids from online nasties wasn’t it.

    Wasn’t it?

  4. By-Tor: Well I thought it indeed was meant to be about “protecting the kids from online nasties” and it certainly isn’t about filtering content on political grounds, at least, not yet. Perhaps it would be the thin end of the wedge? (I’ve noted your IP address).

    There are a multitude of problems with implementing such a scheme detailed extensively at Electronic Frontiers Australia’s website.

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