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Behind the “Great Firewall of China”

Posted by Jacqueline on October 7, 2007

Although the military junta in Myanmar/Burma is the government getting the most flack for censorship these days (and rightfully so), it’s important to remember that neighboring China isn’t exactly known for it’s openness.  In fact, many websites are blocked and there has been talk of bloggers having to register their real names with the government, in order to prevent the spread of “irresponsible and untrue information,” which is a “bad influence” on society.”  (Fortunately, this measure was not put into action). 

The Chinese government’s attempts to control their population’s access to the internet has been termed the Great Firewall of China, and although the wall is far from perfect (users can occasionally get through to banned sites, and there are numerous ways around the blocks, such as using proxies to surf the net, that people can utilize), it’s important to remember the effects of censorship, even if it has proven to be futile for the more technically inclined members of society. 

For instance, just knowing that the government is watching tends to lead to self-censorship. which might not seem all that dangerous on the surface (especially if you live in a country where freedom of speech and the press have long been fundamental rights), but clearly, placing such restrictions can be the beginning of a downward spiral.  However, the Great Firewall hasn’t prevented the Chinese people from embracing the web – according to this study, China will overtake the United States in the number of internet users by 2009.  It’s going to be tough for the government to keep a watchful on all those people.  From the linked article:

“So what affect will the surging population of Chinese web surfers have on the Internet as a whole? China remains divided from the rest of the ‘Net by the content filtering firewall that the government maintains to suppress information and discussion of topics the government deems unworthy. In addition, the government is actively engaged in hunting down people who post negative opinions about the government on blogs, something that US companies such as Yahoo and Google have publicly condemned yet privately supported. These tensions will increase as China’s ‘Net presence continues to grow, but one wonders if the Great Firewall of China can keep up.

Can the Chinese government really keep tabs on all of these users? 137+ million users (and growing) can’t be easily monitored no matter how you slice it, and government attempts at controlling what people say online have been met with a number of high-profile controversies over free speech which have been embarrassing for China, at lest in the western world. Of course, China isn’t too worried about what the western world thinks, especially when the kinds of growth we’re seeing there gives rise to visions of dancing dollar signs and euros in the eyes of many a businessman.”

Recent attempts at controlling the media that the general population consumes include banning RSS (which had previously been a way of accessing banned sites – can’t read the blog?  Try the feed), but as reports from people “behind the wall” say, there are ways around that too. 

One question that arises from this situation is “how can anyone expect to control the web?”  After all, isn’t part of the beauty of the web in the fact that it doesn’t come from one central source?  And won’t the attempts to censor/control the web hurt China’s economy in the long run?

As always, if you have any ideas or projects related to blogging, content delivery, or citizen journalism in places like China where the web isn’t as free or open as it could (should) be, check out the Knight News Challenge.

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