China’s Internet laws restrict access to certain Web sites, but do the restrictions encroach upon civil rights? This piece also ran in the Spring 2009 issue.
By Uyen Nguyen
When Yin Lin first transferred to Syracuse University, there were several differences that she noted between her Chinese culture and the one in the U.S. For the junior nutrition major, one of the biggest surprises was adjusting to the overwhelming amount of media content in this country.
“When I came here, I saw a lot of things that I had never seen before – good and bad,” she says.
One cultural shock for Lin was the amount of information concerning her native country that she had never seen previously. Lin remembers looking up information about the 2008 Olympics held in Beijing and discovering that it had not gone as flawless as she had believed. In Paris, the torch ceremony had to be cancelled due to anti-Chinese protestors. Similar incidents of protest occurred throughout the games. Yet, none of those objections was reported by the Chinese media. Rarely, if ever, do these media sources disclose controversial or negative political information to the public.
Within recent decades, China has experienced exponential technological and economic advances. But despite the immense growth, certain traditions still thrive; one of which is the practice, or lack thereof, of freedom of expression.
“All we know is that the government is good,” Lin says. “Anything negative about politics in china, we can never see.”
One of the newer trends is the crackdown on the Internet. For many, the Internet is the hallmark of open discussion; it allows an open exchange of all opinions between people across the globe. In China, however, that open exchange of information is rather limited.
According to a report released by the Human Rights Watch, a U.S.-based advocacy group for human rights, the censorship of online material includes: the surveillance and restriction of Web content as well as the jailing of bloggers who express dissent toward the government. The censorship system in China is the most advanced in the world, the HRW report states. Tens of thousands of people are employed by the government to serve as cyber-police, monitoring content on the Web as well as mobile devices. Content that does not portray the government in a positive light is simply removed.
China enforces Internet censorship in a number of ways, such as: surveying and monitoring citizens’ chats, e-mails and sites. The first method of censorship is based off of an agreement between Chinese Web servers and the Chinese government requiring the Web servers to divulge information about its users. This includes releasing private e-mail conversations when requested by the government. The second method is the surveillance of chat services. Certain words or phrases, usually of political content, are flagged down in instant messages as well as text messages. If those words are present in a message, the message will not reach its destination. The third method of China’s censorship is the filtering of information from foreign media sources. The system, commonly known as the “Great Firewall of China,” blocks a lot of information from outside sources. If the content contains politically sensitive material, it cannot get through. The “Great Firewall” works as most Internet routers do – packaging information and sending it from one source to another. Most routers have capabilities to filter out viruses, worms and spam in order to protect users. Those same capabilities can be manipulated to filter out other materials as well; in this case, it’s anything that the government deems unfavorable.
Jeffrey Bartholomew studied abroad in Hong Kong last semester and experienced the censorship of foreign news sources first-hand.
“The only press coverage we got was from BBC and CNN and it was a lot of mainstream news,” says Bartholomew, a senior marketing and information studies major. “A lot of underlying issues were not shown,” he adds. He tried to follow the U.S. elections, but encountered problems when trying to view the debates during the primaries.
John Dwyer, a senior entrepreneurship and retail management major, came across similar issues with censorship when he visited China last year. When he tried to look up Tiananmen Square on Google, his search results didn’t contain any information about the infamous 1989 massacre that occurred there. He was able to see general facts about it, such as “the history of it being built, but nothing about people dying there,” he says.
With 80 million Internet users, China has more Internet users than any other country in the world except the U.S. Therefore, it’s a desirable market for conglomerates such as Yahoo!, Google and Microsoft. If these companies want business in China, however, they must cater to the censorship laws. Some of these companies comply with the demands of the government for the better interest of their business. For example, Yahoo! agreed to censor the Chinese version of its search engine and to control its discussion forums, according to an article by Reporters Without Borders, an international advocacy group for freedom of the press. If you search for “Taiwan independence” for example on Yahoo!, you get no results. If you try to post a message on this subject in a discussion forum, it won’t appear.
If the companies don’t comply, they are blocked. In 2002, China tried to block Google; that proved unsuccessful because of the titan’s dominance on the Web. So, instead, the government and Google came to an agreement where certain search topics would be censored. During a press conference, Google co-founder Sergey Brin admitted that Google did agree to “a set of rules that we weren’t comfortable with.” But, in the end, it was for the greater good.
“We felt that perhaps we could compromise our principles but provide ultimately more information for the Chinese and be a more effective service and perhaps make more of a difference,” he says.
The compliance of Google and other corporations raises a lot of concerns about issues of self-censorship and the obligation that companies have to their consumers. When government and businesses are so interconnected, the one who ultimately ends up losing out is the average citizen.