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Flipside: Technology for email interception and censorship most developed

The impressive growth of the Internet in China is matched by the authorities’ energetic attempts to monitor, censor and repress Internet activity, with tough laws, jailing cyber-dissidents, blocking access to websites, monitoring online forums and shutting down cybercafés, according to Reporters sans Frontières (RSF).


MONITORED: There are just five backbones or hubs through which all traffic must pass. No matter what ISP is chosen by Internet users, their emails and the files they download and send must pass through one of these hubs.

In the booming market of 100 million plus Internet users and a flourising e-commerce market is the Chinese authorities' use of a clever mix of propaganda, disinformation and repression to stifle online free expression. Initial hopes that the Internet would develop into an unfettered media and help liberalise China have been dashed, says RSF. Ironically, China is the world's biggest prison for cyber-dissidents.

The Internet can be totally controlled by a government that equips itself to do so, the RSF had said in its annual Internet Under Surveillance 2004 report. The Chinese government has proved that the Internet can be developed and sterilised at the same time. Chinese authorities make effective use of the Internet as a propaganda vehicle. The state news media has a very powerful online presence.

The website of the official news agency, www.xinhuanet.com, and the online version of China Daily, www.chinadaily.com.cn, receive millions of visits every day. Their content is entirely controlled by the Communist Party. The authorities publicise their crackdowns on cyber-dissidents and their online surveillance ability. The Chinese technological arsenal is extremely effective and the cyber-police is enormous.

The architecture of the Chinese Internet was designed from the outset to allow information control. There are just five backbones or hubs through which all traffic must pass. No matter what ISP is chosen by Internet users, their emails and the files they download and send must pass through one of these hubs.

China acquired state-of-the-art technology and equipment from US companies. Cisco Systems has sold China several thousand routers at more that 16,000 euros each for use in building the regime’s surveillance infrastructure. This equipment was programmed with the help of Cisco engineers. It allows the authorities to read data transmitted on the Internet and to spot "subversive" key words. The police are able to identify who visits banned sites and who sends "dangerous" email messages.

The authorities have created an effective Internet filtering system. The far-reaching tentacles of its censorship affect news websites, ethnic minority sites, pornography, the Falungong spiritual movement and human rights. According to a study by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, China blocks access to several hundreds of thousands of sites. Some are blocked by their IP addresses, others by their domain name. But more subtle methods have also emerged. Beijing now practices DNS hijacking, in which someone trying to connect with a site is redirected to another site or an invalid address. This type of censorship is hard to detect by users, who think they have a bad link or wrong address.


FILTERED: The authorities have created an effective Internet filtering system. The far-reaching tentacles of its censorship affect news websites, ethnic minority sites, pornography, the Falungong and human rights.

The authorities also managed to directly censor search engines. In Yahoo’s case the job is easy as the company complied with the government’s demands. Google search engine is also controlled against its will by the Chinese government. Complete blocking of Google was tried in 2002 but it proved problematic as Google has become so intrinsic to the functioning of the Internet. China then succeeded in partially blocking its search results, excluding controversial subject matter. A search for the term Falungong, for example, now either temporarily blocks the user’s connection or gives no result.

Some Chinese Internet users manage to dodge the censorship. One way is to use proxy relays, that is to say, by connecting to the Internet through servers based abroad. Systems were subsequently set up by activists abroad to helps Internet users insider China to avoid the regime’s filters. Particularly active in this field are Citizenlab, a research laboratory at Toronto university, and Dynamic Internet Technology, a company run by Bill Xia, a Chinese émigré in the United States. The US government has also created an Office of Internet Freedom with the job of creating and distributing technologies that help Internet users in repressive countries to sidestep censorship.

Date posted: November 6, 2005 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 10