Why Internet Censorship Won't Work


One of the first things I noticed upon checking into my hotel in Beijing in late October was that my personal blog was inaccessible. I was blocked by the Great Firewall of China.

It's not that the Chinese government finds my thoughts on local politics, UNC basketball, and my wife's photography to be a particular threat. All blogs on the TypePad service are off-limits, along with Google's Blogger platform, and sites including YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.

Social media has proved itself useful in organizing dissent in other countries. As the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre approached this summer, China tightened its restrictions on user-driven sites.

No wonder the organizers of the conference hosted by our sister publication demurred when I volunteered to give a version of the talk my daughter refers to as "The Internet, It's Kind of a Big Deal," also known as social networking for businesses, Enterprise 2.0, etc. (I ended up moderating a panel on IT strategy.)

banned images.jpgBut getting around the Firewall is pretty easy, even for a non-adept like me; I could tunnel out via VPN. Western companies are using strong encryption without pushback from the authorities, and Chinese employees can probably see whatever they wish to see.

And despite limitations on technology available to local consumers, there are other methods for circumventing the infobarrier, including proxy servers. I saw a Western visitor standing a few feet away from uniformed soldiers in Tiananmen Square, beneath the gaze of a giant image of Mao, using a Western-issue smart phone to bring up banned pictures of tanks advancing on the plaza (click thumbnail to enlarge).

At least some segments of the Chinese population are well informed, if careful in conversation. I asked one person about the 1989 events at Tiananmen, and was given a discreet answer about students being influenced by wrong ideas and triggering a vaguely-described government crackdown. There was an artful pause, and then: "This is the official story."

It would be easy enough for the government to tighten its restrictions on information flow, at least on a technical level, especially as China's internet traffic flows through a handful of choke-points.

But it's hard to imagine businesses functioning without secure internet connections. The old joke has it that that bank owns you if you owe $1,000, but if you owe $10,000,000, you own the bank. That logic holds when information is the critical asset.

Just as the US owes China so much money that we have leverage over our creditors, the regime's fondness for data-dependent modern businesses makes those highly-secure network connections hard for the post-Communist authoritarians to break.

I asked an executive about the political expression allowed in artworks we'd seen in the 798 District. "The government knows a picture is worth a thousand words," came the reply. "As long as you don't actually say the words, it's OK." In a networked world, even that level of control may be hard to maintain.

Not sure where that leaves prospects for open access to social sites freely available in the West, but going backwards from the current status quo will be difficult.

Previously: All Censorship is Local.