Banned in China
[ Issue 34 ]

Banned in China fascinates Emily Bronto

Bikwil is pleased to present Banned in China

Banned in China

In the Web Line column for Issue 34 Tony Rogers provides some interesting facts about the People’s Republic of China and its ambivalence regarding the Internet.  Especially as it applies to Bikwil.

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Web Line — Tony Rogers


Guess what? It would seem that the Bikwil Web site is banned in the People’s Republic of China.

But before you say “we must be doing something right”, a little background is called for.

Use of the Internet has spread exceptionally quickly in China, with more than 33 million users in January 2002, most of whom are young, well-educated, upwardly mobile males who live in eastern cities. Within five years China is predicted to become the world's largest Internet user. Not hard to see why, either, considering that the population is already close to 1,300 million — more than a fifth of the world’s population.

Given its modern history, the Chinese Government has understandably embraced the new technology with ambivalent feelings. On the one hand it has actively encouraged this rapid uptake, mainly for economic reasons — i.e. its current commitment to free enterprise and its desire for broader trade relations. Yet on the other hand — out of fear for the political consequences of an open information economy — it has striven to ensure that all content meets Party standards by imposing strict regulations as to its use.

For example, in 2000 President Jiang Zemin told a conference that China should recognise “the tremendous power of information technology . . . [because] the melding of the traditional economy and information technology will provide the engine for the development of the economy and society in the 21st century”.

At the same time, government policy dictates that all local Internet content providers must obtain approval from the Ministry of Information Industry before they can receive foreign capital or cooperate with foreign companies. Not only that, they have to

keep records of all the content on their Web sites and all the users who dial on to their servers for 60 days, and hand over the records to the police on demand. Web site proprietors should also censor and report to the authorities any illegal content that is posted. (Paul Ham, Sydney Morning Herald, 16 November 2000)

Illegal content is content that “subverts State power, harms the reputation of China, damages chances of reunification with rival Taiwan, or supports cults”. In other words, material that “disturbs social order or undermines social stability”.

Penalties for infringement include arrest, large fines and equipment confiscation.

These tight controls have been imposed from the very first day in 1995 when access to the Net in China was opened. This has been achieved by channelling all service through what has become popularly known as the Great Firewall of China, i.e. a large collection of government router computers. In this way, unwelcome sites are blocked before a user can be connected to them.

As for overseas Web sites, it follows that many are going to be regularly barred. Access blocking, however, has been described as “sporadic and disorganized”, and sometimes seems quite capricious. I’ve even seen it portrayed as “quixotic”.

Sites that are blocked or have been previously blocked include:

Amnesty International
ABC (Australia)
Human Rights Watch
Los Angeles Times
Miami Herald
New York Times
Sydney Morning Herald
Tibetan Government in Exile
Voice of America
Wall Street Journal
Washington Post
The White House.

Even the search engines Google and Alta Vista have been proscribed at times.

And now Bikwil.

News of this indiscriminate outrage reached me a few months ago when an Australian teaching English in China was looking for ezines and stumbled on a tempting reference to Bikwil. But could she readily access our Web site? Not on your Nelly Duff. However, like millions of Internet users in China, she knew what to do: she tried a proxy server.

(A “proxy server” is an anonymous relay computer outside the Chinese firewall. Chinese users log on to the proxy server, which in turn logs on to the blocked site, thus fooling the government's site-blocking software.)

Trouble is, proxy servers can be excruciatingly slow, and are sometimes unreliable. Moreover, the Ministry is getting smarter in its intimidation methods, especially about blocking proxy servers.

Consequently, Internet people have had to try sneakier techniques to evade the censors, such as changing the domain names of proxies and setting up smaller unpublicised proxies knowledge of whose existence is passed around “under the radar”, by word of mouth.

If all that sounds too technical, don’t worry: the key thing is that the war game of wills and wits goes on, and as you know, when it comes to Internet censorship the game’s the thing.

Early in October I discovered a method whereby I was able to personally test whether Bikwil is really banned. Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society runs a Web site where with reasonable confidence you can check a given site for its accessibility in China.

Sure enough, Internet access to Bikwil is blocked in China.

But why should Bikwil be banned, anyway?

To be truthful, I really can’t say, but I don’t think it has anything to do with our innocuous and wholesome content — unless of course it was our infamous Issue 10.

Perhaps this breakdown in Sino–Australian relations relates to our [previous] hosting service — Zip World, which is part of a company called Pacific Internet. Is there some dark secret lurking therein? Does it host some other site that’s incurred official Chinese wrath?

More importantly, perhaps, where will this all end?

You never know: possibly one day soon we’ll hear that Bikwil has been banned in Burma, or in Cuba, or in Iraq.

In Saudi Arabia, maybe. Or in Singapore. Tunisia even. Or Vietnam.

Stay tuned.

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