Course taster

China’s great firewall

Invariably, discussion on Internet censorship and control includes significant references to events in China, in connection with the development of the Great Firewall (or Golden Shield). This is quite natural because it affects an enormous number of Internet users (~688 million in 2016). On the other hand, since as so many other countries are gradually increasing their control of web activity, it is somewhat unfair to focus exclusively on censorship in China (see Activity A).

Activity A

In this section, we briefly focus on Internet censorship in China. However, as mentioned, many other countries are adopting increasingly invasive censorship and control policies. To get a greater insight into the levels of censorship and control experienced by people in various countries, access and look through the extensive report entitled 'Freedom on the net 2016', which is available to download as a PDF via the following link:

Activity B

In order to learn more about the Great Firewall, watch and discuss the video below. Although a little dated, this TED presentation provides an interesting and generally balanced account. Please share any other relevant (and balanced) video presentations that you locate and that you feel might be of interest to others in the class.

Michael Anti: Behind the Great Firewall of China

View Michael Anti: Behind the Great Firewall of China video transcript

In assessing the developments in China, it is important to bear in mind that they provide a strong basis for supporting similar censorship activities in other countries. For example, in the case of Zimbabwe:

In January 2016, for example, the president announced that his government would engage the Chinese to help filter the internet and block social media. His announcement came shortly after the draft National Policy for Information and Communications Technology (ICT) was introduced that provides a framework for centralizing control over the country's internet, which critics worry will establish a Chinese-style 'Great Firewall' on Zimbabwe's internet. The Computer Crime and Cybercrime Bill was also introduced in August 2016, which threatens to penalize social media criticism.

Freedom House (2016)

Despite the controls that have been put in place, the Internet in China is thriving. However, censorship controls are very real and have potentially serious ramifications:

The government has shut down access to entire communications systems in response to specific events, notably imposing a 10-month internet blackout in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region – home to 22 million people – after ethnic violence in the regional capital, Urumqi, in 2009. Since then, authorities have enforced smaller-scale shutdowns, including in March 2016, when network disruptions were reported in western Sichuan province after a Tibetan woman set herself on fire and burned to death in an act of protest against Chinese rule of Tibet... In some cases, whole domain names or internet protocol (IP) addresses are blocked, with users receiving an explicit message about illegal content. Other interventions are less visible. For example, observers have documented unusually slow speeds that indicate deliberate throttling, which delays the loading of targeted sites and services.

Authorities also use deep packet inspection (DPI) to scan both a user's request for content and the results returned for any blacklisted keywords. Once these are detected, the technology signals both sides of the exchange to temporarily sever the connection... Returning fake pages, or replacing the requested site with content retrieved from an unrelated IP address using a technique known as DNS poisoning, is another routine method of disrupting access to specific content...

Censorship decisions are arbitrary, opaque, and inconsistent, in part because so many individuals and processes are involved. Blacklists periodically leak online, but they are not officially published. There are no formal avenues for appeal. Criticism of censorship is itself censored...

Freedom House (2016)