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China browsing restrictions may drop off during Olympics

As Beijing prepares for Summer Games and flood of foreigners, government's censorship of sites such as Wikipedia and BBC might need to subside.

Graham Webster
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.
Graham Webster
3 min read

Something was going to give.

As Beijing prepares for the Olympics and the attending flood of foreigners, many of them reporters, expected to arrive this summer, the government's controls over the Internet have become increasingly sophisticated. But would the Olympic organizers really be OK with dozens of stories about reporters and athletes unable to reach Wikipedia and BBC?

Apparently, decision makers are indeed worried about press regarding censorship. AFP quotes an Olympic organizing committee representative as saying, "I believe you will be able to (access banned sites such as the BBC), but I can't give you a promise yet. The relevant government departments are still working on it."

The story is unrevealing, especially because of the parenthetical inserted in the above quote, which is attributed to Wang Hui. (Was she really referring to BBC? To all banned sites? To specific sites not including the BBC?) This also doesn't tell us anything about whether keyword filtration, another common censorship method, will continue.

I won't list the sensitive terms here, because I don't want this post (or on an unlucky day, CNET at large) to get blocked, but they include phrases about sensitive historical events such as the one in 1989. Too many mentions of two things that start with a T--an island with a U.S. security pact and a Himalayan region home to a famous form of Buddhism--can also get a site or individual page in trouble. Names of dissidents, especially when rendered in Chinese, often result in a block.

So if keyword filtering continues, but IP and domain blocking are turned off, browsers in China will be able to access Wikipedia, Blogspot blogs, Wordpress-hosted blogs, the BBC, and many other sites that I currently have to use proxies to access.

Keyword filtering is more directed and less likely to be detected by visitors not used to the restrictions. Here's how it works:

  • A browser requests a page on an unrestricted IP address.
  • In transit, one node in a network of checkpoints and filtering software (not a monolithic Great Firewall of China suggesting 100 percent coverage) detects filtered keywords.
  • That node, through which data packets are being routed, sends a "reset connection" command to both the browser and the host.
  • The transmission stops, and the browser displays a connection reset message, making it appear as if there may be a transmission or Web server glitch, not censorship, at work.

I doubt that the entire censorship regime will be shut down during the Olympics. Communications on the sensitive issues I noted above will likely be closely monitored for fear of demonstrations timed to distract attention from the national showcase in Beijing. But perhaps, if the government learns that it can handle things through keyword filtering alone, the irritating bans on Web sites central to my daily reading load will cease.

Just to be clear, though, I find the statement reported by AFP to be entirely inconclusive. We don't know what will happen yet. Perhaps the government will announce details, and it seems likely that some or all filtering will cease during the Olympics, but we'll just have to wait and see.

(Hat tip to Richard at The Peking Duck, where an alert commenter has noticed that while news.bbc.co.uk has been blocked for a long time, the identical site newsvote.bbc.co.uk is available. A small victory for my news-reading diet.)