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Censorship Science Your Rights Online

Is China's "Great Firewall" a Fraud? 185

Posted by kdawson
from the leaky-filter dept.
An anonymous reader notes an article up on ScienceBlogs that calls into question the efficacy of the touted "Great Firewall of China" — a program by the government of the People's Republic of China to block users from reaching content it finds objectionable. Researchers at UC Davis and the University of New Mexico have performed experiments on the Great Firewall, sending test content to destinations inside China and observing what gets through. They conclude that the Great Firewall is more of a "panopticon" that encourages self-censorship through the perception that users may be being watched, rather than a true firewall.
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Is China's "Great Firewall" a Fraud?

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  • Not surprising. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by DaedalusHKX (660194) on Wednesday September 12, 2007 @01:38AM (#20568019) Journal
    I find that "panopticon" is something unfamiliar to many western readers. This concept, however was evident in many places where totalitarian authoritarian states were to be found. This includes the North American continent which has at least 3 known authoritarian states.

    However, the Great Firewall is no surprise, as it is more likely civilian self censorship and self policing that results in most "apprehensions" of dissenters the Chinese government makes yearly. Many of these people are not caught by the "technologies" or police departments, but instead are turned in by "good citizens" (otherwise known as family members and friends).

    Again this comes as no surprise to me.
  • by pwizard2 (920421) on Wednesday September 12, 2007 @01:47AM (#20568081)
    Just imagine the effort it would take to continually watch even a small percentage of the population at any given time. Not to mention, effective surveillance would require people to do the watching (not just machines) and word would get out about it, no matter how oppressive the regime.

    I would compare this with the carpool lanes on USA highways.They are one of the few instances that I could think of that has signs posted every few hundred feet to warn would-be violators about the dire consequences. It basically boils down to the fact that it is impossible to effectively police the carpool lane vehicle occupant policy (due to the fact that many vehicles have tinted windows and are moving at a high rate of speed, thereby making it difficult to see inside the vehicle), so they have to try and scare people instead.
  • comon (Score:4, Insightful)

    by frakir (760204) <ockhamrazor@ y a h o o . com> on Wednesday September 12, 2007 @01:59AM (#20568165)

    I find that "panopticon" is something unfamiliar to many western readers.
    Western readers just call "panopticon" in politicaly correct way.
    They call it 'political correctness'.
  • Re:Equivalent (Score:5, Insightful)

    by flyingsquid (813711) on Wednesday September 12, 2007 @02:32AM (#20568401)
    I was in Beijing less than a week ago, and while I was there I had tea with some Chinese scientists. I was surprised to learn (I had to be told, since I know about three words in Mandarin) that they were actually having an argument about, well, politics. I guess I'd just sort of assumed that talking about politics in China was like talking about your sex life in front of your parents, something you just didn't do. I then had an interesting discussion with a senior scientist there; she argued that Chinese socialism was the worst system of all because of all the abuses and corruption, mentioning numerous instances where Chinese scientists and officials would bill the government for personal expenses, meals, family vacations, and soforth.

    I can't claim that this has given me any profound insight into how the system affects the Chinese. What I did find was striking was this- I wrote an email about this experience to a friend. And afterwards, suddenly I started to worry. Not about myself, but about the Chinese woman I'd had a discussion with. I concluded it probably wasn't a problem, since all I did was mention that we "discussed socialism" which could mean just about anything. But knowing that my communications could be watched, and that the government could potentially harm someone because of what I said... well, our conversation was one of the most interesting experiences I had while I was there, but I didn't bother to mention it in any of my other emails to friends. So for me, that was the really scary thing, not the knowledge that the government could harm me, but that it could harm the people around me if I wasn't careful about what I said. So certainly, the system seemed to be having the desired effect with me, and I'm a westerner used to free (as in consequence-free) expression, and I was just there for a week.

    What I have to wonder is, what's going to happen at the Olympics? Beijing is going to be flooded with foreigners. And unlike the Tienanmen square uprising, there will be cameras- digital cameras, video cameras, cell phone cameras, news cameras- everywhere, and I don't see how the Chinese government can possibly control the flow of information. All it's going to take is a few media-savvy demonstrators who want to make a scene, and either the government will have to tolerate them (which will be bad for them) or crack down (and have everyone witness it, which will be worse). I don't know... I think they may have gotten more than they bargained with in getting the international attention of the Olympics.

  • by QuickFox (311231) on Wednesday September 12, 2007 @02:36AM (#20568423)

    Why is this modded troll?
    Not that I can read the moderator's mind, but my guess is that he believes that the poster is making light of tragedy.

    Some people don't understand that humor and laughter is also a way of crying together and sharing the pain of tragedy. I automatically read the comment that way, but very likely the moderator didn't. This kind of humor is especially widespread under repressive regimes, where you can't talk explicitly about the issues. In such countries people tend to comment on things in ways that humorless secret police agents will meet with a disapproving and slightly bewildered frown, rather than a one-way ticket to the Gulag.
  • by Goonie (8651) * <robert.merkelNO@SPAMbenambra.org> on Wednesday September 12, 2007 @02:43AM (#20568449) Homepage
    My home newspaper and the Wikipedia are also blocked.

    And, surprisingly enough, the vast majority of Chinese people can't read English. So the existence of English-language media discussing controversial topics is largely irrelevant to all but a relatively small elite.

  • Conspiracy Theory (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Belacgod (1103921) on Wednesday September 12, 2007 @02:47AM (#20568463)
    Lots of commenters here have said "I live in China, and all you need is a proxy to get around this."

    What if the CCP has purposely built their firewall to be circumventable with just a little hacking? A few years of this and much of the population has an interest and a little skill in computer tricks, increasing the pool of computer talent in the country for both peaceful development and recruitment for nasty hacker armies? They could be engaging in social engineering to get a leg up in computer warfare.

    In WWII, one huge advantage the USA had was that every kid had grown up tinkering with old cars, so every tank crew had an amateur mechanic, without having to specifically assign and train them. This could produce a similar effect for the Chinese.

  • by fuzheado (733418) on Wednesday September 12, 2007 @03:34AM (#20568695) Homepage

    As someone who's written a lot about the GFW, I always remind people -- the Great Firewall only affects connections going into and out of China. For domestic traffic there is no firewall or filtering at the router level. There is another system for censorship of content on servers inside China -- good old fashioned licensing to be a "content provider" and local regulation. If you're operating inside the sovereign borders of the PRC, then there are other conventional means of controlling content, like telling your ISP to shut you down or serving your company legal notice.

    So it's a fallacy to talk about the Great Firewall as the most important part of the censorship system. The majority of folks in China are looking at entertainment content on servers inside China, and not trying to lookup the latest human rights abuses on foreign servers. Similarly, Americans are more interested in Britney Spears and the latest viral YouTube video than they are researching historical abuses of Native Americans.

    I'm writing this from a coffee shop in Beijing using their free Wifi (which is quite common). With all these sensitive words in the post, hope it makes it through. (Though I'm kind of tempting fate by hitting the Preview button repeatedly)

  • Re:Equivalent (Score:5, Insightful)

    by arivanov (12034) on Wednesday September 12, 2007 @04:14AM (#20568977) Homepage
    Nothing new here. Soviet block was the same.
    • Politics were the most popular topic for a drunken conversation around the table in the ex-Soviet Union.
    • Political jokes constituted roughly 60-70% of all humour floating around. We had jokes about the fact that Brezhnev jokes cannot exist because they violate the fundamental universal constraint on the speed of light by travelling from one end of Moscow to another instantaneously.
    • The situation in other ex-Warsaw block countries like Bulgaria was not any different. It went even further. Everyone was grumbling, taking the piss of the system, moaning complaining, telling political jokes. Nobody was even considering rebelling or doing something proactive against the government.
    • Add to that that a lot of the literature and "formally allowed" humour like stand up comedians at the time had a lot of politics and very serious political satire inside.
      • For example on the subject of what you are mentioning - scientists taking the piss of the system - just read "Monday starts on Saturday". That is present in plenty of books from that period. "Monday starts on Saturday" and "Snail on a Slope" by the Strugatcki brothers come to mind as a perfect example.
      • Similarly people like Okudzhava, Zhvanecki, etc wrote all kinds of stuff that was taking the piss of the system and that was sang by people, shown in theatres and some of that even shown on TV.
    What the "socialists" do not tolerate is open rebellion. That they squash straight away. They let the people grumble and vent steam (within limits) because if they clamp on that the chances for open rebellion increase dramatically. They do not have the resources to clamp on all of that either.

    Further to this, organising something like Tian-an-Men Square or the student strikes nowdays requires money and is usually supported by foreign resource. Been there, seen that in the ex-Soviet block. Never got my hands dirty with it though (probably should have). If China does a good job of following all suitcases with money flowing into the country prior to the Olimpics they will not need to worry about any troubles.

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