Olympics preview: Beijing's Internet censorship, surveillance

Will the Internet be wide open in Beijing or will authorities be watching online traffic during the Olympics in August? I offer my best guesses.

Sinobyte commenters have raised two good questions about Internet freedom during the Olympics, set for August 8 to 28 in Beijing. I'm going to give the best kind of answer available for each: an educated guess.

I had written about "free Wi-Fi," which hasn't yet really started working, but is slated to be available during the games in some key areas of the city.

Commenter DangerousOffender asks: How "free" will the access be? Will users be able to access the entire internet, or will it be censored?
I was referring, of course, to "free of charge," but this is a good question. In recent years, no public internet connection has been completely unfiltered. Censorship works in a few different ways: some Web sites are simply blocked at the IP level, making it impossible to access them without a proxy; certain sensitive terms in pages, if detected by filters, can cause the connection to be disrupted; and sensitive terms that appear as part of a URL can trigger a similar disruption.

In the lead up to the Olympics, many online limitations have been relaxed. Access to BBC News was restored . Blogspot has been unblocked, blocked again, and is presently available from this connection in Beijing. English Wikipedia is available, but Chinese Wikipedia is still blocked. After pressure from the International Olympic Committee, the Beijing committee has promised fewer restrictions, but since some ISPs do the censorship themselves to avoid trouble with authorities, any "opening" may not trickle down to every connection.

Rumor has it, anyway, that top hotels full of foreigners and journalists will have unfettered access. I doubt this will be a citywide phenomenon, let alone a national loosening.

JeffW42 asks: How monitored will it be? Will your e-mails be reviewed for "offensive" material, and username and password stored for later reference?
While we have some guesswork to do on censorship, there's even more to do on surveillance. Let's focus on capability and relevance.

Capability: Chinese authorities are viewed by many around the world in governments and other fields as highly capable in infiltrating computer systems. While the Chinese government denies it every time, U.S. authorities say attacks of various kinds have come from China. What's more important is this: We know the government has access to the gateways between China and the rest of the Internet. It should be assumed that, just as any traffic can be filtered for keywords, any traffic can be more closely monitored.

Relevance: The fact that authorities could capture your traffic does not necessarily mean your passwords could be captured. A properly configured SSL-based password system, standard on most websites, should make password capture very difficult if not impossible. Though I am not a security expert, my sense is that this sort of surveillance would be a very low priority for Chinese authorities.

On the question of reviewing e-mail for content, it seems highly unlikely that e-mail would be blocked. If you're planning a big protest or something, however, expect that you and your buddies are on some kind of list for closer monitoring. Simple measures can make all communication much more smooth and quick during high-filtering periods. Users of Gmail, for instance, found that while a normal HTTP connection was extremely slow during the recent unrest in Tibet , using SSL by typing in https://mail.google.com/ (the added "s" is the key) made the connection faster, and e-mails containing sensitive terms were delivered more consistently.

A little perspective
Much is made of China's Internet restrictions. A few things of note, before one seizes on this as unique. I'm not trying to argue that the restrictions are good, but I think a lot of people take this phenomenon and turn it into an anti-Chinese trope without placing it in a bit of a context.

  • A study found that most Chinese approved of government controls over the Internet.
  • Several students at elite universities I have met in Beijing had no idea there was any censorship.
  • The U.S. government, for example, is not exactly free of programs to monitor its citizens' communications.
  • China has a lot of surveillance cameras, but so does Britain.

Now, if you can get a visa to China, come on over and enjoy the games. I hear lots of the hotels are wide open.

About the author

    Formerly a journalist and consultant in Beijing, Graham Webster is a graduate student studying East Asia at Harvard University. At Sinobyte, he follows the effects of technology on Chinese politics, the environment, and global affairs. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network, and is not an employee of CNET. Disclosure.

     

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