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Censorship Science Your Rights Online

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

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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  • by mdenham ( 747985 ) on Wednesday September 12, 2007 @02:38AM (#20568011)
    ...that the "Great Firewall" is only filtering packets that are outbound from China.

    Not necessarily likely, mind you, but it's possible.
  • by Chapter80 ( 926879 ) on Wednesday September 12, 2007 @04:24AM (#20568649)
    Interesting comparison: China says they are watching the citizens, and the citizens self-censor.

    In the US, we preach freedom, and people feel they aren't being watched, and probably let their guard down. Yet our very act of patriotism, "The Patriot Act", provides unprecedented watching.

  • by LS ( 57954 ) on Wednesday September 12, 2007 @04:27AM (#20568661) Homepage
    I can tell you that the things in the west are very exaggerated. You can pretty much speak about anything you want here in public, as long as it doesn't cover a few hot-button topics. You can take photos and video anywhere. Many services are paid for anonymously, so there is very little tracking. And the public is aware that internet filtering is more of manifestation of a policy than the policy itself. This is very common in Chinese culture - the outward manifestation and the implicit reality being two different things. This allows for quick flexibility, whether it be bending the rules by those that obey them, or changing the rules by those that create them. You are expected to know where this implicit line lies so that you do not step on toes, even though it will never be explicitly described. It has it's positives and negatives, for example the ability to quickly override bureaucracy, but also greasing the skids of nepotism.

    Anyway, the firewall is like DRM. It 'protects' the general public from seeing things they shouldn't, but it isn't really effective against anyone who knows anything.

  • by 2Bits ( 167227 ) on Wednesday September 12, 2007 @04:32AM (#20568687)

    If China's censorship system were a true firewall, most blocking would take place at the border with the rest of the Internet

    Well duh, the so-called firewall is certainly not the same firewall that everyone means, and the researchers should know better. The system was not setup to totally block/filter everything at the gate. Certain groups of users must be allowed to access all contents, regardless of political censorship at the time, this includes: foreigners living in China, certain government departments and agencies (some police departments, NSA-equivalent, CIA-equivalent, ...). For example, if you go to places where there is high concentration of foreigners living in China, especially in certain building, you can access everything, there is no blocking/filtering at all. For example, when there is any well-known, well-publicized international conference held in China, the whole block where the conference is held can have non-filtered access, especially in hotels where foreign guests are concentrated.

    The system is setup to allow contents in and out, but certain routes are blocked/filtered, while others are not. That's why you see some messages passed through several routers before being blocked. If the system was setup to block/filter everything at the gate, this would not be able to achieve.

  • by darkfire5252 ( 760516 ) on Wednesday September 12, 2007 @05:26AM (#20569049)

    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.

    Right. The only way a state or other entity could possibly afford to take on a project as ambitious as 'watch everyone everywhere at all times' would be to find some way to get massive amounts of funding and support. It would also require a large amount of research into the fields of pattern recognition (neural nets for facial and behavioral recognition). You'd almost have to find a large amount of very wealthy people and convince them that it would be in their best interests to finance the project for you.

    Thank god that China Security and Surveillance Technology and China Public Security Technology, two companies that have the goal of doing just that are now listed on the New York Stock Exchange (NYTimes Linky []). During the period from April 2006 to April 2007, $164.2 million dollars has been invested in the China Security and Surveillance Technology company by US investment groups.

    From the article:

    Hedge fund money from the United States has paid for the development of not just better video cameras, but face-recognition software and even newer behavior-recognition software designed to spot the beginnings of a street protest and notify police. [...] his company's software made it possible for security cameras to count the number of people in crosswalks and alert the police if a crowd forms at an unusual hour, a possible sign of an unsanctioned protest.

    China Security and Surveillance is involved in some of the most controversial areas of public security. [...] one of the company's growth areas involved surveillance systems for Internet cafes; the government is trying to clamp down on users of the cafes in order to discourage pornography and prostitution.

    In Shenzhen, white poles resembling street lights now line the roads every block or two, ready to be fitted with cameras. In a nondescript building linked to nearby street cameras, a desktop computer displayed streaming video images from outside and drew a green square around each face to check it against a "blacklist."

    But hey, maybe, after they've done all the hard work of researching and field testing the equipment, us Westerners can buy a few of the systems off of them cheap. After technology like this has been developed and tested, what up-with-the-times state wouldn't want a few of these lying around for 'social stability.'

    I, for one, welcome our new bought-and-paid-for overlords.
  • by Kojo ( 1903 ) on Wednesday September 12, 2007 @06:31AM (#20569437) Homepage Journal

    Now, it may not be an actual "Firewall" in the strictest sense but "The Great NetNanny of China" doesn't have the same ring. Like another poster said, it seems to work via reset packets. I'm not networking expert, I just know I get a lot of "connection reset" error messages.

    The problem with the Firewall isn't what it blocks, but it's HOW it blocks...the sporadic, chaotic nature. I've been here for two years. When I arrived, LiveJournal (which I was using to keep in touch with friends) was fine. In October of last year, it got blocked. It remains so. Wikipedia has been blocked and unblocked SEVERAL times. As ShanghaiBill said, there are proxies, but THOSE sometimes get blocked. And it's NOT just porn or "politically objectionable" material that's being blocked. There was a "computer help" call-in radio show I used to listen to, but THEIR site was blocked. All manner of sites that have NO political, pornographic or otherwise "controversial" information are blocked for reasons unknown.

    Another prime example is Google News. The HOME page often opens just fine, but if you try to click a link to follow one of the stories ON the home page? "Connection reset". I'll often get the same thing when trying to SEARCH from Google News. SOMETIMES it works, but you never really know WHEN it will and when it won't.

    That's the big problem with it for me, the fact that you never know from one day to the next WHAT'S going to be accessible and what won't be.

    I mention this not to complain, but to point out that any thoughts of "There IS no Great Firewall" are foolish. Like I said, it may not meet the strict technical definition of "firewall" because it doesn't do all of it's filtering 'at the edge', but the truth is MOST people not on Slashdot have NO idea how a firewall works. They just know it's supposed to BLOCK stuff. That's the case in China. The internet IS censored here MUCH more than it is in the US and many other countries I've heard from.

  • by revengebomber ( 1080189 ) on Wednesday September 12, 2007 @06:45AM (#20569535)

    Remember Tiananmen Square?
    Yes. []
    No. []
  • Re:Equivalent (Score:4, Interesting)

    by fliptout ( 9217 ) on Wednesday September 12, 2007 @06:51AM (#20569565) Homepage
    Did you hear clicking noises on your phone while in China, too? :D

    Regarding the Chinese system of business relationships, it is called guanxi. I term it a euphemism for corruption. But hey, Chinese culture is 5000 years old, or so they claim, and things do not change swiftly there.

    Regarding discretion of speech, some of my chinese friends were not afraid to says "fuck the communist party" in front of other chinese. It is not a big deal anymore. Just don't say something dumb on live tv or make yourself a big target.

    The government will become interested if you try to foment an insurrection and challenge their power. Small scale chit chat probably does not register a blip on their radar these days. Now that we are in the 21st century, I assume that all communication is monitored, no matter where you are. Email is sent in plain text, IM in plain text as well, etc etc.

    As to the Beijing olympics... I think the government's main problem at the moment is smog. A clear blue sky is a rarity there these days, and this does not create the best impression of the city. I *loved* living in Beijing, but the air quality is terrible.

    Hope you enjoyed Beijing! :)
  • by fliptout ( 9217 ) on Wednesday September 12, 2007 @07:01AM (#20569639) Homepage
    Taiwan is a biggie. China sees Taiwan as a rogue province, and mainland Chinese people are acutely aware that the USA does not, ahem, see eye to eye with Beijing on the matter. I've traveled to Taiwan and lived in the mainland, and I frankly got sick of talking about it. They have their propaganda, the Taiwanese have theirs, and we have ours(USA). The question of independence is a matter of national pride in China and Taiwan...Basically an extension China's most recent civil war.

    Nothing happened to me when I talked about Taiwan. People were curious to know what I though. I expressed myself tactfully. Usually they stfu'd after I told them I had been to Taiwan, and people there use their own laws, currency, etc etc.

    Now if I had gone on national tv in china (it is ridiculously easy these days for a westerner who speaks chinese) and called for Taiwan independence, well.. Maybe I would have been asked to leave... If I was Chinese, the result might be different- jail. :P
  • Exactly. (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 12, 2007 @09:12AM (#20570813)

    Posting from China (yet again) let me tell you I have absolutely _zero_ desire to click on either of those links.

    Let me put it like this: this weekend I took taking a friend from the States out to the great wall and was traveling in a rented car with a driver, tour guide and a friend from Taiwan. Friend from the States starts trying to dig up the name of some nutty group you dont talk about in China (happens to be one of the tags on this story). Me and Taiwanese looked at each other, laughed, and just changed the subject. I wouldnt even consider posting that name from my address (or really _any_ IP address in the good ol PRC).

    You Just Dont Go There

    Beijing is a wonderful place. You trade these things for the ability to: get on transportation and walk down the street not harassed by cops and having your papers checked, walk down the street with no shirt drinking a beer if its hot and you so choose, and buying damn near anything produced on this planet for about one eight the cost.

    As long as you are not doing something the government is _explicitly_ telling you not to do no one harasses you. From what I hear EVERYTHING is technically against the law in China - but if you are a generally "socially harmonious" person you generally dont have anything to fear. The parent post references the really big one. From what I can tell you everyone in China knows both sides lost - it is regarded as "a very unfortunate incident for everyone" - but you be sure whenever anyone questions who is in charge that runs through their minds.

    Right now the latest craze is all the free tickets on corruption are being called in. In the span of 2 months they charged, convicted, and executed basically the head of the FDA if you didnt hear about it - the heavy hand goes right to the top.

    You self censor - its that simple. Everyone does it and after a while its just natural. As long as my searches get blocked and there is a camera on every corner I think its easier just not to talk about some things.

    Now the question is do I post this under my name, or using a proxy, or...... ;)
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 12, 2007 @09:36AM (#20571233)
    I visited China in October 2006 and plugged my computer into the hotel's LAN.

    I had seen this discussed so I was curious. I googled "democracy" and when I attempted to follow any of the top 10 links, I was shown a very Chinese-patriotic screen with a lot of red flags, yellow stars, and text all in Chinese, despite the fact that my Google results were in English. I would frequently see this page when trying to view many common sites.

    However, I didn't have other problems. I could still login to US WoW servers, check my e-mail on US domains, and FTP into my own webhost and upload whatever I wanted.

    So, at least the WWW is censored heavily. And since I'm guessing the majority of Internet users today spend the majority of their time http surfing, that's a pretty real firewall, regardless of what some geeks at a university say about useless technical details.
  • You worry too much (Score:2, Interesting)

    by hackingbear ( 988354 ) on Wednesday September 12, 2007 @01:19PM (#20575513)
    I was born in China in the 1970's. when I was kid and I had no many toy so I tried to fold a paper ship out of a newspaper, but my sister, who is 5 years older, told me not to do that because there was the picture of Chairman Mao on the paper. that was pretty much the only self-discipline event I have remembered. Then starting in the early 1980's, thing started loosen up. Nobody cared or worried if you said bad things about the government or the part or the leaders; we listened to radio from Hong Kong as well as Voice of America on the short-wave. Blaming and criticizing the government and the party are the daily topics around the lunch/dinner tables. In the current days, things are even more open. Like in July, when the government suddenly raised the stock transaction fee (to curb the rampant stock market,) there were over 270,000 messages in the news discussion board -- almost all of them were slashing on the government and its credibility in explicit wording as well as calling for democratic reform. What usually got blocked nowaday are the three topics: tiananmen, Fa Lun Gong and Taiwan independence. If you don't try to promote your messages on mass media and make yourself a big figure, nobody cares. All people and the government care nowaday is money.

"Never face facts; if you do, you'll never get up in the morning." -- Marlo Thomas