Image credit: Steve Rhode.
Over at Foreign Policy, Eveline Chao has given a thorough and well-written debunking to a number of persistent myths about the Chinese internet, censorship, and the ‘Great Firewall‘.
1. Censorship means the Chinese are left in the dark.
Nope. While China chatter is rife with stories of people who today still have no idea, say, that Beijing massacred civilians on Tiananmen Square, for the most part, Chinese Internet users are cosmopolitan, educated, and informed. Many use, or at least know they can use, circumvention technology like VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) to access blocked content. (These will always thrive, if nothing else, in order to access porn.)
2. It’s the government that censors.
Companies must sign a “Public Pledge on Self-Discipline for China Internet Industry” in order to get a Chinese Internet Content Provider license, and the government holds all Internet companies operating within China, both foreign and domestic, liable for everything that appears on their sites. This includes comments on social media, and even on online chat and instant messaging. Companies deemed not in compliance can have their business license revoked and be summarily shut down.
As a result, every large Internet company employs its own censors.
3. No-one is allowed to criticize the government.
False. The government rarely sets out explicit censorship guidelines, making it difficult to determine what gets censored and what doesn’t. But, a Harvard University working paper on social media censorship, the most recent version of which was released in October, found that there is plenty of criticism of the government online.
4. Internet censorship is carried out in blanket fashion.
Unlikely. When the New York Times website was blocked in China in October after publishing an article on the $2.7 billion amassed by the family of then-Premier Wen Jiabao, the online chatter was uncertain as to what actually happened. This kind of confusion often occurs in discussions of China’s Internet blocks because the censorship employs a variety of different methods. These include connection resetting (which returns an error message that usually occurs when a site is down or has moved to a different address); redirection to China (typing in Skype.com from within China will take you to Skype.tom.com, its local partner which is subject to Chinese regulations); DNS poisoning (wherein the Internet service provider changes the DNS record of the blocked site, taking one to a dummy web server hosting a block page, which could contain malware); throttling (severely slowing down a site in lieu of blocking it outright, often done to Gmail in China); and timing out (when the site tries to load for so long that the browser gives up; indistinguishable from a genuine technical problem).
5. The internet will lead to democracy.
Today, post-Arab Spring, we might be in the middle of a Facebook Fallacy. After the resignation of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, activist and Google executive Wael Ghonim said, “If you want to liberate a society just give them the Internet.” But the Internet is not enough in the absence of the right political, social, and economic factors. And tools of free speech can be tools of surveillance. VPNs, so widely used to circumvent censorship, are easily blocked and monitored.