Chinas Internet Controls Raise Tough Questions

Photo: AFP/Frederic J. Brown

HONG KONG—China's vast and sophisticated Internet curbs are confounding perceptions of the Web as a borderless free-for-all. Now, market-hungry Western businesses face stepped-up scrutiny over just how much they may be aiding China's online censorship.

Last weekend, former U.S. President Bill Clinton gave a keynote address at the fifth China Internet Summit in the booming and tech-savvy city of Hangzhou, lauding the ability of the Internet to make information available to anyone.

His speech, however, failed to mention the case of Chinese journalist Shi Tao, jailed by a court in the central city of Changsha April 27 for sending an e-mail to an overseas rights group detailing the activities of the secretive Central Propaganda Department, which controls China's media.

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Shi was convicted of "illegally providing state secrets abroad," and sentenced to 10 years in prison by the Changsha Intermediate People's Court. Investigators were able to prove he sent the e-mail thanks to private information supplied by Internet giant Yahoo!'s Hong Kong subsidiary.

Appeal to Clinton

Just before the summit began, two overseas rights groups called on Clinton to bring up the jailing of Shi Tao with Yahoo! founder Jerry Yang, who was also in Hangzhou for the summit.

"Yahoo provided evidence that contributed to Shi's arrest and conviction for activities that did not threaten China's national security, but merely represented the exercise of his right to free expression and to criticize the government, as protected by China's own constitution," said the open letter, signed by Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the New York-based Human Rights in China (HRIC).

Yahoo! later said it must comply with the laws of the countries in which it operates.

"They said we have to comply to the Chinese regulations, but we also have to comply with Chinese customs. What does that mean?" RSF spokesman Julien Pain told RFA's Mandarin service in a recent interview.

"Does that justify the betrayal of personal and private information to the Chinese goverment? This isn't just a legal issue; it's a moral issue too," said Pain, who specializes in China's Internet controls.

Moral choice for companies

Clinton later told reporters he "had a bad cold", was unaware of Shi's case before he made his speech, and would have mentioned it, had he known.

The U.S.-based editor of the online Chinese magazine, Da Cankao , Li Hongkuan, said that doing business in China involved an inevitable moral choice, for small and large companies alike.

"Anyone who wants to make money in China has to surrender to the political power of the Chinese Communist Party," Li told RFA reporter Xi Wang. "Under such circumstances, the fate of single individual like Shi Tao would simply not figure in their calculations."

"China has no protection for human rights," Li said. "This is a basic moral choice that anyone wanting to do business there must face. There is always a tension between the need to maximize profit, and the rights of the individual. In a democratic country, the company will bow to the right of the individual for privacy."

According to a recent report by the Harvard-backed Open Net Initiative (ONI), China's Internet filtering regime is the most sophisticated of its kind in the world, involving "multiple levels" of legal regulation and technical control.

They said we have to comply to the Chinese regulations, but we also have to comply with Chinese customs. What does that mean?

"It's important to remember that success in filtering doesn't require total control; it just requires altering the average online experience of the average user," Derek Bambauer, research fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, told RFA.

Sophisticated Web filtering

"China is one of the best counter-examples to the "cyber-optimism" that characterized the early days of the Internet," Bambauer said by e-mail.

According to the ONI study, entitled "Internet Filtering in China 2004-2005", Beijing managed to censor content "transmitted through multiple methods, including Web pages, Web logs, on-line discussion forums, university bulletin board systems, and e-mail messages."

"Our testing found efforts to prevent access to a wide range of sensitive materials, from pornography to religious material to political dissent. ONI sought to determine the degree to which China filters sites on topics that the Chinese government finds sensitive, and found that the state does so extensively," the ONI report said.

Chinese citizens seeking access to Web sites containing content related to Taiwanese and Tibetan independence, Falun Gong, the Dalai Lama, the Tiananmen Square crackdown of June 4, 1989, opposition political parties, or a variety of anti-communist movements will frequently find themselves blocked, it said.

Beijing-based cyberdissident Liu Di, who was detained by the authorities for one year for publishing online articles critical of Beijing under the pen-name "Stainless Steel Mouse", said that most e-mail accounts within China are considered insecure by those who are concerned enough to notice.

U.S. technology helps censors

"I think the majority of people don't really care about this. They don't care if someone is reading their e-mails. Apart from a small minority, that is," Liu told RFA.

U.S.-based Internet giant Google, and Microsoft's MSN have also come under fire for censoring online news sites and Web logs, or blogs, featuring content that China's communist government wants to suppress.

And U.S.-based Internet equipment maker Cisco Systems has been charged with actively helping China's censorship program with its 12000 series routers, which were designed to combat various Internet attacks, including worms and viruses.

According to the ONI report, Cisco released instructions on how to configure their routers' Access Control Lists to block the spread of the Code Red worm. The same instructions could be re-tuned to exclude content that Beijing doesn't want its citizens to see.

"We find that a lot of Western technology is used for Internet filtering in China," Bambauer said. "Cisco's routers block computer viruses and pro-democracy sites with equal ease."

Last May, a group of Cisco shareholders filed a resolution urging the company to add human rights considerations to the criteria it uses to certify resellers.

Original reporting in Mandarin by Xi Wang and Shi Shan. RFA Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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