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Bypassing China’s Internet Censorship

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Chinese NetizensBeijing’s clampdown on ’Net use did little to stop the courageous who want their voices heard.

In April 2006, China Ministry of Public Security formed the Golden Shield Project. It is, supposedly, a “digital system for information management that is separate from the Internet.” In reality, its true purpose is to monitor the Chinese public’s use of the ’Net.

Most Chinese citizens have become more aware (if not more fearful) of the state’s cyberlaws since then. The restrictions, however, have not stopped the determined within and outside China from going around and even penetrating the shield in various ways.

Censorship Policies
Since the project’s creation, Beijing has hired around 30,000 Chinese civil servants to monitor Internet traffic daily—blocking content they deem undesirable, such as news from Western media and human rights organizations. Officials can censor anything they declare socially or politically harmful.

And compliance is frighteningly amazing. Most Internet service providers (ISPs)—afraid of being held liable for customer conduct—employ their own monitoring teams (called “big mamas”) to delete objectionable content in fora and blogs with politically sensitive messages. Customers have to bring an identification card that is kept for recording purposes for 60 days.

Internet cafes are even required to install alarm systems in their computers that go off when a user posts or browses forbidden content. The computer makes a copy of the offensive material and sends it directly to the police, who can use the evidence to prosecute the offending customer.

Those trying to go to sites related to Taiwan, Tibet, the Dalai Lama, the SARS outbreak, and other pages deemed inappropriate by the Chinese government are told their connection was “reset,” had “timed out,” or the site was “not found.” There are even instances when surfers are diverted to a government website.

In Shenzen, authorities have gone as far as creating Jingjing and Chacha. The male and female police cartoon characters—their names were taken from jing cha, which means “policeman” in Chinese—are meant to serve as “police presence” in the area.

But there seems to be no need for the two. Even without direct police presence, ISPs and netizens usually censor themselves. After all, opinions they post online could be taken down in a matter of hours. Many also fear that they will be fined, incarcerated, tortured, or worse, killed.

The rules are somewhat relaxed when major international events take place in the mainland. Foreign reporters can easily access some sites that are normally blocked in China. The English version of World Without Borders and Wikipedia, for example, suddenly became accessible during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Still, most of the websites, especially those with politically sensitive contents, remain blocked all the time, even to foreigners. Those related to the persecuted spiritual group Falun Gong, which has a massive following in China, are unavailable, while information related to the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 has been completely removed from the Chinese Internet.

Broken Shield
Forearmed When traveling to China, better know beforehand which sites are banned and which are not. WebsitePulse. com and others like it offer a lot of helpful information. Logging on to the online version of the Philippine Daily Inquirer is easy, but try accessing www. freetibet.org and you will get “The connection timed out.” Most people in China surf in cybercafés. Fortunately, Golden Shield is not invincible. Those who have secure connections to computers outside the mainland have found different ways to gain access to forbidden sites. They often use proxy servers outside the firewall, like Psiphon, Freegate, and TOR.

Even Falun Gong has launched UltraReach Internet Corp. and developed UltraSurf, a software that enables Chinese netizens to access forbidden websites without fear of detection by Internet Explorer.

Others employ hacking systems that can totally bypass censorship assuming they know which non-blocked sites they can download these programs from.

Some go to certain entertainment or sports websites, which are seldom monitored, to discuss sensitive political matters. For example, one can set up a blog about cats, but post comments on the present political situation in China.

Many have even invented and used different code names for controversial topics. Every time one code name gets in the list of censored words, ‘Net users simply come up with new ones to discuss banned topics.

Some Internet content providers remove politically sensitive stories only when the government complains about them. By then, the story had circulated to others, and the information had been made public.

Surviving Censorship
When traveling to China, it would be helpful to know beforehand which sites are banned and which are not. (WebsitePulse. com and others like it offer a lot of useful information.)

Encrypted e-mail (like Cryptomail and Hushmail) protects one’s account from government surveillance. Using normal email is a bad idea since the authorities have systems that allow them to secretly read other people’s electronic mail.

One can also try international websites instead of using the Chinese counterparts. Take search engines, for instance. The Chinese version of the US-based Google isn’t blocked; same thing with Skype, an Internet service used to call others internationally for free.

When posting controversial topics, one must avoid online discussion groups that are highly censored. Also, writing controversial words onto the title of the post is not advisable. Putting sensitive words or phrases in the body text lessens its chance of being monitored.

If the information is not sensitive, one can opt to send it through snail mail instead. Even better, just send it via short message services (SMS) since China has yet to implement a strict surveillance system on SMS.

Most importantly, one must always be vigilant. Some websites, like Wikipedia, may be available on certain days, but blocked on others. Foreign websites are accessible except when the requested page contains sensitive information related to China.

Despite the walls Beijing has set up to limit the flow and transfer of information, Chinese users continue to use the Web. One only needs courage, persistence, and resourcefulness to break through stringent Chinese Internet censorship laws. Besides, a billion angry netizens could always crack and shatter the shield, no matter how tough authorities make it.

Print ed: 12/08


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