HONG KONG—As Beijing redoubles its efforts to censor Internet content during sensitive National Day celebrations, netizens are turning to an existing form of mobile technology to exchange information, according to residents in southern China.
Many netizens are now making use of Bluetooth, an open wireless protocol for exchanging data, to create personal area networks with a range of up to 10 meters on their mobile devices and share information.
Xingzai, a netizen in China’s southern Guangdong province, said the technology helps him to spread news from media organizations that are otherwise censored in China.
“I just want to spread the news to others…so they won’t feel they have been left out. We download the news every day and transmit it to others,” Xingzai said.
Most modern cell phones are equipped with Bluetooth technology, and when two or more cell phone users have the feature enabled, it is easy to share data such as downloaded audio or text files between devices.
Once a user offers to share files from his or her device, other devices in the area will receive a transmission request that they can either approve or reject.
If approved, the file will transmit to the device in a format that allows it to be read or listened to.
Xingzai said he offers to share files at bus stops and subway stations, where commuters are crowded together in an area serviceable by a Bluetooth network and are often looking for information to read as they wait.
“There are streams of people at bus stops or subway stations. Some of them are curious and want to receive real information… A good mobile phone can transmit data over a distance of 50 meters,” he said.
Bluetooth is also an ideal method of sharing sensitive material anonymously, as no information about the sender is transmitted beyond what has been specified as a name for the device of origin.
Still, Xingzai said that, based on his own experience, the method is not without security concerns.
Only two out of every ten users are willing to receive the information, as the cell phone number and identity of the sender is hidden during transmission.
“When I’m doing this on a bus or a subway train, people always wonder who has sent them the information,” Xingzai said.
'The right to know'
Liu Shihui, a human rights lawyer in Guangzhou, said that transmitting news in public places through Bluetooth on mobile phones is not against the law if copyright issues are not involved.
“Every citizen has the right to know what’s going on politically, economically, or socially, and news provides them with political and social information,” Liu said.
Liu added that spreading information is in the interest of the public.
“I think it is legitimate from the legal perspective, as it is not used as a source for private gains but to spread truth to more people. Also, it is a step forward, as it directly promotes the people’s right to know,” he said.
But Li Renbing, another human rights lawyer, cautioned there could be issues of intellectual property rights violations if music is being transmitted between mobile phones via Bluetooth.
Though Chinese authorities are unable to use censorship technology to control Bluetooth, they can monitor the content being exchanged. And people are always at risk of being charged with illegally spreading news.
“People can easily produce their own videos or other multimedia, as the technology is no longer a limitation. The problem is content. The existing administrative edicts strictly ban the reproduction and publication of news or programs from overseas,” Li said.
Liu Shihui said that using Bluetooth on mobile devices to transmit news does not violate the law.
“Presumption of innocence is stipulated in the 1997 penal code. This means a person remains innocent until the court pronounces him guilty. But I can’t guarantee that using Bluetooth on mobile phones to transmit news will not be investigated,” Liu said.
“In China, many things are unpredictable. Even if one has done nothing wrong, one could be framed or persecuted,” he said.
Increase in online censorship
Many of China’s netizens are disgruntled at the increasing failure of Internet circumvention tools to get around the sophisticated set of blocks and censorship filters known as the “Great Firewall.”
Chinese netizens and overseas technology experts say the authorities are now successfully undermining key software used to get around the Great Firewall, such as U.S.-based software developer Andrew Lewman’s Tor “tunneling” software and U.S.-based Dynamic Internet Technology’s Freegate software.
Netizens have also reported problems using Chinese versions of the micro-blogging service, Twitter.
Twitter equivalents Fanfou, Jiwai, and Digu were recently shut down, forcing many Internet users to migrate to Twitter, bloggers said.
And when leading Chinese Internet portal Sina.com launched its own Twitter-like service, Sina Micro Bo, users complained of too many controls.
To sign up to the service, users must receive a registration invitation containing a password.
The operators further limit users’ freedom by strictly monitoring comment boards and through the use of automatic filters.
The controls on Sina Micro Bo are consistent with attempts by Beijing to impose real-name user registration on all of China’s netizens, making anonymous Web surfing much more difficult.
Original reporting by He Shan for RFA’s Cantonese service. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.