Law in the Internet Society

Freedom of Speech Behind the Great Firewall of China

-- By MatthewGriffinCashia - 26 Nov 2012

World Wide Web?

The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to free speech. In Reno v. ACLU, the Supreme Court struck down a federal law that banned "indecent" communications online, granting communications made on the internet at least as much protection under the First Amendment as that afforded to other mediums. Although these protections are granted to U.S. citizens, other governments have applied quite different approaches and standards when it comes to acceptable forms of speech over the internet.

Although commonly referred to as the world wide web, Jonathan Zittrain states that “it is more accurate to state that we have a Saudi Wide Web, an Uzbek Wide Web, a Pakistani Wide Web, a Thai Wide Web, and so forth.” Many nations have greatly departed from the level of freedom enjoyed in the U.S., albeit each has done so in varying manners. One of the most common methods countries have employed to engage in internet censorship is to employ filters which block individual pages containing pre-defined words.

The Great Firewall of China

The Great Firewall of China, also known as the Golden Shield Project, refers to the Chinese government's efforts to censor content available to Chinese citizens via the web. According to the state sponsored news agency, Xinhau, censorship in China only targets "superstitious, pornographic, violence-related, gambling and other harmful information." However, websites discussing or centered on political topics, as well as foreign news sources, are also commonly blocked.

China is suspected of engaging in a number of technical methods to block communications it deems objectionable, including: (1) internet protocol (“IP”) blocking, (2) domain name system (“DNS”) filtering and redirection, (3) universal resource locator (“URL”) filtering, (4) packet filtering, and (5) connection resets. These methods can result in the blocking of either single web pages or entire domain names.

The most common technique that Chinese authorities use to monitor activity on the web is known as mirroring. Because almost all internet connections between China and the rest of the world come from a small number of fiber optic cables that enter the country at three main points (or gateways), the Chinese government is able to employ a device, known as a “tapper” or “network sniffer,” which mirrors every packet of data traveling through these gateways. As the information flows through the cables, they emit small pulses of light which travel through the Chinese gateway routers which simultaneously reflect the information to the Chinese authorities’ computers. These computers “decide” whether the requested content should be blocked.

A second method that the Chinese government uses to censor data is known as DNS filtering and redirection, or more simply DNS blocking. Under this method, a list of entire websites has been blacklisted, and as such if a user tries to access these sites they will receive an “error” or “site not found” message.

A third method is known as the URL keyword block. Under this method, the domain name of the site is checked for key words that the Chinese authorities have banned. If the requested URL contains forbidden terms, access to the site will be denied.

It should be noted that while an individual is viewing a site the Chinese surveillance systems are scanning the site repeatedly looking for prohibited words or phrases. If one of these terms is found, the system will end connection from the user’s computer to the site’s server.

China also employs an internet police force – reportedly numbering 40,000 – to manually monitor websites and chat rooms and to delete objectionable conduct.

Impact of the Great Firewall of China

Chinese citizens’ access to certain sources of information and their ability to engage in certain types of speech is either restricted or forbidden as a result of the Chinese authorities’ censorship efforts. However, enforcement efforts do not end at merely seeking to prevent forbidden internet communications. Chinese authorities also commonly fine and/or arrest individuals for engaging in prohibited online communication or activity. In 2011, Amnesty International, a human rights organization, stated that more than 100 Chinese activists, many of them active on Twitter and blogging networks, were either detained, subjected to monitoring and intimidation by Chinese officials, or have gone missing. A Chinese dissident and lawyer who has recently received international attention, Chen Guangcheng, was reportedly beaten after he posted a video to the internet.

In addition to Chinese censorship harshly restricting the free flow of thoughts and information to and among Chinese users, the Great Firewall of China has also impacted foreign internet companies seeking to operate in China.

As a result of this stance on internet freedom of speech, many non-domestic internet companies have instituted restrictions or taken other actions in order to operate in China. For instance, Microsoft does not allow the word “democracy” to be used in a subject heading for its MSN Spaces blog service; Google, at one point, restricted search results for Tiananmen Square; and Yahoo has previously handed over emails that led to the convictions of two internet dissidents.

Because of the standards of conduct required by the Chinese authorities, many non-Chinese companies have opted not to enter or have since exited the Chinese market. For instance, Google has exited the Chinese market after it discovered attempts to steal intellectual property and access the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. This exit was soon followed by Go Daddy, who refused to issue further .CN (i.e. Chinese) domain names after Chinese agencies demanded personal information and photographs of Go Daddy clients.

Is it Blocked?

This link provides a test to determine if a website is currently censored in China, and this link provides an illustrative list of censored key words and websites. Though less documented and well known, many experts state that it is possible to get around the Great Firewall of China through the use of a Virtual Private Network ("VPN"). For options to get around the great firewall of China, please see this link providing a list of for-pay and free options.


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r3 - 23 Aug 2014 - 19:33:51 - EbenMoglen
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