In post-Google China, censorship is unfazed

The People's Republic of China doesn't have Google search to kick around any more, but it's still got network filters and cautious Web surfers and site owners under its thumb.

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
9 min read

Chinese Internet users have one less Web search option this week, but otherwise it's business as usual as the People's Republic of China uses technology and intimidation to keep citizens away from objectionable content.

Following several months of strategizing and negotiations, Google finally stopped censoring its search results in China and is redirecting visitors to Google.cn to a server based in Hong Kong. There they see unfiltered results and are able to visit sites about Falun Gong, Tiananmen Square, and Tibetan independence.

Andrew Lih: 'You would be surprised how little people want to or need to access stuff that is blocked or restricted by the Great Firewall.' Andrew Lih

As noble as the move might be on Google's part, it changes very little for the approximately 400 million Internet users in China who have long lived with restrictions on their online and offline activities.

The departure of Google search from the country is "an obvious reminder of how heavy censorship is in China," Hal Roberts, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, said in an interview this week.

Meanwhile, a mysterious mix-up on Wednesday that sent Domain Name Server (DNS) traffic destined for Google's YouTube, Facebook and Twitter among other sites to servers behind the so-called Chinese Firewall of censorship has some speculating that it was retaliation against Google. How far will the People's Republic go in its geopolitical squabbles over freedom of the Internet?

Google's move out of China was a highly public stance against that country's censorship policies and was related to attacks that the company said originated within China late last year and which targeted Google and human rights activists who use Gmail.

"Google arguably provided a more neutral, more open platform" for about one-third of the Web surfers in China than the local market leader Baidu does, Roberts said on Wednesday before the DNS problems became public. The search is considered higher-quality, so "Google certainly has an effect on them."

But how much of an effect did Google really have?

In an interview with PBS' NewsHour this week, China Internet and media expert Isaac Mao said that 90 percent of the people in China don't care whether Google stays or not.

"Most people in China won't really be affected by (Google's) decision that much, because they already live within the Chinese language infosphere," James Fallows, national correspondent for "The Atlantic" magazine, said in the PBS interview. "But it's an important symbolic moment."

The cute cat theory
Contrary to the perception in the U.S. that Chinese citizens are clamoring for subversive information, Internet users there tend to be more interested in general information and entertainment--much like Web surfers in the U.S., according to Roberts.

Citing what he called the "cute cat theory," Roberts said Internet users in China are more interested in videos of cats flushing toilets than they are in reading political diatribes. "At the end of the day, the social uses of the Internet are bigger drivers than political and controversial news content," he said.

"You would be surprised how little people want to or need to access stuff that is blocked or restricted by the Great Firewall," the name for the network filtering conducted behind the scenes by the PRC, said Andrew Lih, a visiting professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism and author of "The Wikipedia Revolution."

"It does happen, but it's not like people are there wanting to research human rights violations and Taiwan independence, stuff most users won't run into in the course of a normal day," he said. "Probably 98 percent of what they're searching for is not going to be blocked."

This is exemplified by the fact that portals, which dominated the U.S. Internet in the 1990s, are still extremely popular in China. Portals Sina.com and Sohu.com serve as the home page for many Chinese Internet users, providing packaged content that is sure to be favorable to the government.

Chinese Web surfers "don't have the same use characteristics you have in the U.S. where people hop onto Google and search willy-nilly," Lih said.

People in China also aren't as outraged about government attempts to restrict freedom of expression as Americans claim to be, experts say. As much as 85 percent of the population think the government should control the Internet, according to a 2007 survey (PDF) conducted by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences that did not specifically address censorship.

While the average user in China may not mind censorship or have relied on Google search, professional workers, academics, and other "sophisticated" users in China did, according to Lih. It may not be a huge number of people, but it's an important group, he said.

Chinese officials are wise in allowing and promoting alternatives to foreign sites they block, such as YouKu, the Chinese version of YouTube, Roberts said. However, there does not appear to be a true substitute for Twitter, a favorite site for political dissidents in Iran and elsewhere.

Unlike other Internet censoring countries like Saudi Arabia and South Korea that display messages about why a site is blocked when citizens try to access them, China's efforts are not transparent by design. By providing no guidelines and keeping citizens guessing about policies and enforcement, the PRC has less to do as citizens and sites heavily self-censor, erring on the safe side.

"If you know all the rules you'll put your toe right up against the line," Lih said. "If the rules are fuzzy you are at a disadvantage. You're not sure how far you can go."

The Great Firewall of China
So, what is the Chinese government doing to censor the Internet?

There are a handful of Internet access "choke points" in China, where all the traffic enters and exits to the outside world. "All countries connect virtually all of their IP addresses through at most dozens of ISPs, but China's network is the most centralized of any large country, with only four ISPs connecting more than 90 percent of its IP addresses to the rest of the Internet," Roberts said.

Hal Roberts: 'China's network is the most centralized of any large country, with only four ISPs connecting more than 90 percent of its IP addresses to the rest of the Internet.' Kristine Roberts

The Great Firewall is the system of gateways, routers, and servers that China uses to keep objectionable content from reaching users inside the country. Authorities mirror the stream of traffic flowing into the domestic Internet and determine what portions of a Web page the government wants to block, Lih said.

If the traffic is blocked at the domain name system level, users may get a "site not found" message; if the IP address is blocked the message may say "site unreachable;" and if the URL is blocked or a page contains sensitive content a "connection reset error" message may be displayed, according to Lih.

"China's Great Firewall system is so sophisticated and massive, it can tailor blocking for each individual Web surfer because it monitors a person's surfing activity to sites outside of China's domestic Internet, right down to what's contained inside the web page," Lih explains on his Web site (PDF).

"In the case of someone doing a Google search, each search engine results page (SERP) being sent back to a PRC user is being analyzed for sensitive keywords, and the user's Internet traffic to Google can be blocked within seconds. This is happening every day, constantly, regardless of whether the search engine is Google, Bing, or something else," Lih writes.

Web surfers in China are accustomed to the variability in performance and may be uncertain why any particular site is not accessible, he said, adding that most users will just give up and move on to another site when they can't easily get through.

Meanwhile, Internet content providers like portals need licenses to operate and must hire people to make sure the content does not run afoul of the government's prohibitions. The sites are in charge of censoring themselves, but there are more direct forms of coercion, as well. For instance, authorities will send text messages to administrators within the content provider sites telling them what topics are banned, according to Lih.

Chinese officials reportedly were working on new guidelines that would require owners of any Web site to provide identification and a photograph in an attempt to better keep track of all sites in the country.

PRC officials are as subtle in their offline warnings to people who appear to be trying to skirt the rules as they are in their online messages. "You'll rarely get busted outright," Lih said. They'll let you know slowly that they don't approve of your behavior, such as by making it obvious they are following you. They will give you lots of little warnings before they bust down your door."

As if monitoring the Internet traffic and restricting what content providers display weren't enough, the Chinese authorities recently attempted to require filtering software on users' computers. However, officials pulled back from the so-called Green Dam software initiative last year following complaints by researchers that it has serious security holes and would put computers at risk of being compromised.

"Censorship out in the cloud of the Chinese Internet was one thing, but putting a piece of software on computers that could potentially watch every keystroke...that was huge, even for people who approve of the government censoring and (ostensibly) looking out for the good of society," Lih said.

Internet cafes are supposed to require identification and keep track of who accesses the Internet, but most don't do that, he said. Then there are lots of open Wi-Fi hot spots that offer some degree of anonymity, he added.

Tunneling out
For those who crave unfettered access to the global Internet, there are ways to get past China's Great Firewall. People can route their Internet traffic through proxy servers that are located outside China, but this slows things down a bit. For example, Gladder is a proxy Firefox add-on. There's also the Tor network of private tunnels that offers total anonymity.

Many foreign companies with offices in China use virtual private network (VPN) services that create private, encrypted channels for transmitting the traffic past the Chinese monitoring system to servers outside the country. VPNs are faster but come at a financial cost that might be too steep for many citizens.

"Most of the time I lived in Beijing (from 2006 to 2009), I was blocked and had to leap over the firewall with a proxy," Lih said.

Moving its search operations out of China is just the latest example of how Google sets itself apart from rivals Yahoo and Microsoft with regard to protecting the privacy rights of users.

Google began offering Gmail users the option of encrypting the traffic between the browser and Google's servers with "https"--the secure version of Hyper Text Transfer Protocol--in and then turned that on by default for all Gmail users earlier this year.

And the company keeps customer data from things like Blogger, Gmail, and other services safe from prying PRC eyes by locating the servers outside China's borders, Lih said.

While Microsoft representatives won't confirm that they keep servers in China, they acknowledge that they do comply with local laws. Yahoo has proven that it does too, to dire consequences. At the PRC's request, Yahoo provided information on several dissident users who were then arrested and sentenced to 10 years in jail.

Yahoo settled a lawsuit filed by the arrested men's families. That was one week after former Yahoo Chairman and co-founder Jerry Yang and Yahoo's general counsel were called "moral pygmies" during a on the matter.

Since then, Yahoo has been relatively quiet on the Chinese front, letting Alibaba Group, in which it has a 40 percent stake, use the Yahoo brand for a portal site there.

For its part, China isn't taking the Google action lying down and is trying to control how the stories around the event are reported. PRC officials have issued strict guidelines for how media there should cover Google going forward, including banning anything that is supportive of Google, requiring that they get their facts only from PRC sources and using only government approved experts.

And the PRC may retaliate by expanding its censorship of Google. It's possible, too, that Chinese authorities could block Google.com.hk altogether if matters escalate further, Lih said.

Correction, 8:44 a.m. PDT: This story initially gave an incorrect figure for the number of Internet users in China. That group actually stands at 400 million.