Saturday, February 9, 2008 - The Progress & Freedom Foundation Blog

Can Great Firewalls and Golden Shields Stop the Net?

Last autumn Wired magazine described the Great Firewall of China and concluded that for the most part the Net is winning. James Fallows of The Atlantic now adds a helpful primer on the Chinese Internet. Fallows describes the techniques China uses to discourage -- but, as he concludes, not completely block -- foreign content. Fallows thinks the Great Firewall is full of holes and is easily punctured by anyone willing to put in a little effort. With easily obtained proxy servers, virtual private networks (VPNs), and surfing persistence, Chinese can usually access the entire global Net. All businesses with foreign dealings, Fallows writes, have global Net access. I have always found fast and wide open Net access in China, but admittedly my experiences are heavily colored by stays in modern Western-style hotels. Fallows says right now the government imposes just enough of a hassle that some significant portion of Chinese are deterred and effectively blocked from true Net freedom. Overall, Fallows concludes:

It would be wrong to portray China as a tightly buttoned mind-control state. It is too wide-open in too many ways for that. “Most people in China feel freer than any Chinese people have been in the country’s history, ever,” a Chinese software engineer who earned a doctorate in the United States told me. “There has never been a space for any kind of discussion before, and the government is clever about continuing to expand space for anything that doesn’t threaten its survival.” But it would also be wrong to ignore the cumulative effect of topics people are not allowed to discuss. “Whether or not Americans supported George W. Bush, they could not avoid learning about Abu Ghraib,” Rebecca Mac­Kinnon says. In China, “the controls mean that whole topics inconvenient for the regime simply don’t exist in public discussion.” Most Chinese people remain wholly unaware of internationally noticed issues like, for instance, the controversy over the Three Gorges Dam.

It turns out Walls and Shields -- Great, Golden, or otherwise -- are mostly impotent against a flood of ethereal bits and bytes.

posted by Bret Swanson @ 9:12 AM | China