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Saturday, June 25, 2005

What is Kevin Poulsen Saying Today? (The Great Firewall of China, And Yahoo! "Censorship" in the Good Ol' USA) 

Remember him? Well, here's his latest:

The Chinese version of MSN Spaces is linked to the new MSN China portal, launched last month in partnership with Shanghai Alliance Investment, a company funded by the city government here. Last week that partnership plunged Microsoft into the long-standing controversy surrounding the Chinese government's internet censorship policies, after Asian blogs and news reports revealed that MSN Spaces blocks Chinese bloggers from putting politically sensitive language in the names of their blogs, or in the titles of individual blog entries.

The words and phrases blocked by Microsoft include "Taiwan independence," "Dalai Lama," "human rights," "freedom" and "democracy."

In a statement, lead MSN product manager Brooke Richardson said, "MSN abides by the laws, regulations and norms of each country in which it operates. The content posted on member spaces is the responsibility of individuals who are required to abide by MSN's code of conduct."

[Entrepreneur Isaac] Mao dismisses that statement as disingenuous. The company, he says, is going above and beyond official censorship practices, which deal decisively with speech critical of the ruling communist government, but don't outright ban words like "freedom."...

Existing Chinese blog-hosting companies strike that balance by policing their members' blogs for postings that might get the company and its users in trouble: The phrase "China needs democracy," for example, would set off a red flag. But "democracy" itself is not a dirty word....

Chinese netizens numbered 87 million last year, and about 1 million of them -- evenly split between genders -- are now blogging. When the number of bloggers grows to 10 million, the Chinese government may find itself unable to control the content, says Mao, even with its vast array of human and technological resources devoted to the task.

Chief among those resources is what's colloquially called the "Great Firewall," a notorious filtering system that prevents Chinese netizens from visiting websites of which the government disapproves.

The firewall was in evidence last week during a late-afternoon visit to a sprawling, smoke-filled internet bar in the Xi Jia Hui district, where an after-school crowd of fashionably dressed young people streamed in to nearly fill the nearly 200-plus PC stations.

Major news sites like CNN.com, MSNBC and Wired.com were freely accessible from the PCs. Google could be reached at first, but the caches were blocked, as was Google News. The BBC's front page was accessible, but individual stories were not. Anonymizer.com was blocked.

Amnesty International's website was blocked, suggesting that the Chinese government holds the international human rights group in the same regard as the Bush administration. Human Rights Watch was blocked, along with nine of the top 10 results from a Google search on "China" and "human rights." After running that search, Google was blocked from the PC for about 10 minutes....

The Baltimore Sun is also reporting on this:

Today, Microsoft is working closely with Chinese government censors to make sure Chinese bloggers don't take their readers' minds where Beijing doesn't want them to go - by blocking postings with certain dangerous words, such as "human rights," "freedom" and "democracy."

The restrictions apply to postings on Microsoft's blog-hosting service in China, MSN Spaces, which has already attracted 5 million Chinese, or about one-twentieth of the Internet users in the world's largest nation - a potentially lucrative toehold for the world's largest software firm. But at what price? Selling out core American values - starting with free speech - for the lure of vast profits in China not only aids Beijing's repression but also damages Microsoft's credibility worldwide.

Other Internet service companies - Yahoo and Google - have been accused of participating in China's "Great Firewall," Beijing's Big Brother system of keyword filtering and user monitoring to limit the cyber-paths and information available to its 1.3 billion citizens, a fifth of the world. But for the most part, China's restrictions have been imposed by Beijing on Yahoo and Google, whereas Microsoft's Shanghai-based joint venture is said to have built the censorship mechanisms into its own computers. It's the difference between doing business under a changing but still repressive system and doing business by sustaining that system with active collaboration.

In response to criticism, Microsoft has justified this big misstep by saying it's simply adhering to China's laws. Even more galling, one of the company's more prominent bloggers, an employee named Robert Scoble, actually suggested in a June 12 posting that many Chinese don't believe in free speech and thus Microsoft shouldn't put itself in the position of foisting it on China - an assertion so ill-founded as to be offensive....

For the record, here's some of what Scoble said in his June 12 entry:

[D]o I think Chinese citizens should have the right to publish whatever they want? Absolutely.

But, and this is a big but...I'm not Chinese. I'm American. So I have ABSOLUTELY NO BUSINESS forcing the Chinese into a position they don't believe in.

Hear me out.

I've been to China (as an employee of Winnov about seven years ago). I met with Government officials there. I met with students. I met with professors. They explained their anti-free-speech stance to me and I understand it. I don't agree with it, and I will be happy to explain to anyone the benefits of giving your citizens the right to speak freely, but it's not my place to make their laws. It certainly is not my right to force their hand with business power.

Any more than it's their place to make American laws. I'd be very offended if Chinese companies tried to influence our laws here. Or, pushed their agenda on American soil....

What does the wowie zowie Congressional - Executive Commission on China say?

Article 35 of the Chinese Constitution states that Chinese citizens enjoy freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Other legislation, such as China's Publishing Regulations, stipulates that groups and individuals may not interfere in the lawful exercise of these rights.

In some respects the average Chinese enjoys more freedom of expression today than at any other point in China's history. Everyone from farmers to taxi drivers to restaurant owners will, with little or no prompting, freely express their discontent with the Communist Party, its policies and its corruption, both among themselves and with foreigners. Jokes about leaders that would have resulted in execution or enslavement in imperial China and imprisonment a mere 20 years ago, are now rapidly propagated throughout China in chat rooms and via mobile phone short-text-messaging.

Government reforms, the spread of the Internet, and the introduction of capitalist market forces to the publishing industry have resulted in more sources of government-controlled and government-filtered information becoming available to the citizens of China. While still state-controlled, China's media is becoming increasingly vigorous in providing coverage of matters such as local crime and corruption scandals.

While these developments represent an improvement over China's propaganda-obsessed media of the preceding half century, it does not change the fact that today the Communist Party enforces restrictions on publishing activities more strictly than any other government in China's history, and that the people of China do not enjoy freedom of political expression in any meaningful sense of the term. More precisely:
  • China's government does not allow people to publish news except in government controlled forums;

  • Chinese authorities imprison those who publish views that are inconsistent with those approved by the Communist Party;

  • It is illegal for anyone to publish a newspaper or magazine unless they are wealthy and have express authorization from the government;

  • It is illegal to publish a book about a political leader in China unless its contents have been reviewed and approved by the government.

Here's a little more about The Great Firewall:

Chinese authorities continue to block human rights, educational, political, and news websites without providing the public notice, explanation, or opportunity for appeal. Chinese officials have publicly admitted that the government has established a national firewall to prevent Chinese citizens from accessing certain types of content. Studies conducted by Commission staff and others indicate that China's national firewall is used primarily to block political content, not obscenity or junk mail. Tests performed by the Commission staff indicate that the Chinese government continues to manipulate Internet communications in the following manner:
  • Attempting to access prohibited websites results in either a gateway timeout or "Page Cannot Be Displayed" message. Chinese authorities continue to block sites such as Google's cache (which would allow people to view "snapshots" of sites taken by Google, and thereby view Web pages which were otherwise blocked), the Alta Vista search engine, BBC (Chinese), VOA and those of most human rights organizations critical of the Chinese government (including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights in China, China Labor Bulletin, the Dui Hua Foundation, and Reporters Without Borders).

  • Searching for certain sensitive terms, such as "Falun Gong," on search engines regulated by the Chinese government yields results (which do not deviate from the official government position), while searches for the same terms on search engines not regulated by the Chinese government, such as Google, results in the Internet browser being temporarily disabled.
  • Attempting to send e-mails from China to well-known dissidents using an Internet browser interface results in the browser being temporarily disabled.

Chinese Internet users are generally able to access English-language news from major Western news media outlets through the national firewall, but Chinese authorities actively block Chinese language news websites with contents they are unable to control. For example, tests performed by the Commission staff indicate that while Internet users could access the BBC and Radio Canada websites in English, the Chinese versions were inaccessible.

Over the past year, Chinese authorities continued their policy of increasing the extent of Internet censorship during politically sensitive times. For example, Chinese authorities blocked access to foreign news websites (even sites available only in English such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and CNN) during the 16th Party Congress in November 2002 and the 10th National People's Congress in March 2003.

Chinese authorities are becoming increasingly sophisticated in how they censor the Internet and admit to developing technologies that will both enable more targeted censorship and notify government officials as soon as any person tries to access such websites. Specifically, officials claim to be prepared to deploy technologies that will allow them to automatically and precisely block Web pages based, not on specific words, but on the actual viewpoint of the author. In February 2003, state-sponsored academic researchers in China announced that they had already developed such technology for a "Falun Gong Content Examination System." Using this system, if an article contains pro-Falun Gong information, it is designated as "black." If the system determines an article criticizes or opposes Falun Gong, it is designated as "red" and blocked. The system can be installed on personal computers, servers, and at national gateways, so that as soon as a user tries to visit a Web page that is pro-Falun Gong, the system can filter the page and immediately notify authorities.

Tests performed by Commission staff indicate that systems providing this type of increasingly fine-tuned censorship have already been deployed at some Internet cafes. Specifically, Web pages containing sensitive content on sites that are otherwise accessible begin loading, but before they are completely visible the page is replaced by a message informing the user that the content the user is trying to access is forbidden. The browser is then automatically redirected to a government-authorized general interest website, but the user is not told why the site was prohibited or to whom an appeal can be submitted to have the prohibition removed.

Internet bulletin board systems (BBSs) continue to provide a glimpse at how Chinese authorities would like to shape the Internet. As the government-affiliated China Internet Network Information Center put it: "[BBSs such as the one operated by the official People's Daily] represent the degree of freedom of expression the people of China have." Chinese law requires all BBSs to be licensed, all articles to be constantly monitored, and all BBS providers must keep a record of all content posted on their website, the time it was posted, and the source's IP address or city name.

BBSs use software to automatically block posts containing blacklisted words and also use human monitors to block and remove articles posted with content that they deem politically unacceptable. It is possible to watch as users on government-controlled BBSs debate with the censor about whether or not a given post should be allowed. In one case, a Commission staff member observed a user successfully persuade a censor to allow his post because, even though the title sounded like it was praising the U.S. multi-party system, in fact it was a long essay about the dangers inherent in such a system. Commission staff regularly observe censors removing posts that are either too critical of the government, or that might be acceptable by themselves but have generated too many responses critical of the government. BBSs that become known for allowing cutting-edge postings on politically sensitive topics routinely disappear from the Internet altogether.

Of course, in a theoretical way, some would argue that censorship happens here also:

Family advocacy groups lauded Yahoo Inc. on Thursday for closing its chat rooms to clean up areas that allegedly were used to prey on children.

Over the past month, pressure has been building on Yahoo to crack down on chat rooms that promoted sex with minors. After learning some of their advertisements were showing up in such chat rooms, companies such as PepsiCo Inc., Georgia-Pacific Corp. and State Farm Insurance removed their ads.

Yahoo's move came after a lawsuit was filed against the Internet portal last month on behalf of a 12-year-old molestation victim and following a long campaign by watchdog groups to persuade Yahoo and other large Internet portals to purge their sites of child porn. The suit seeks $10 million in damages....

[A]fter years of trying to persuade Sunnyvale-based Yahoo to go after child pornographers operating within the chat rooms, critics suspect the threat of a costly civil suit and the potential loss of advertising dollars likely prompted Yahoo to act....

From the Ontario Empoblog

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