The Three Monkeys


The Great Firewall of China: Web Censorship From the Orient to Middle East

Web Censorship is an important part of everyday life in the East, just as web freedom is an important part of life in the West. When the net arrived in China in 1994, it brought with it an immediate threat to the power and security of the ruling Communist Party. The response was to create a project known as "Golden Shield": The Great Firewall of China. Constructed over 8 years from 1998 to 2006, "Golden Shield" allows the Chinese government to censor the net at will, suppressing activists and preventing illicit communication. It now blocks everything from foreign news networks to sites that "Harm national unification".

The Chinese firewall now blocks at least 18,000 websites and 12 of the top 100 sites in the world, including Google. Google are one of the largest opponents of the Chinese firewall; in 2010 the company decided to end its policy of self-censorship following repeated hacking attempts by Chinese government sponsored hacking agents. This led to Google being banned in full throughout China for a short period of time, but now the company has relocated its Chinese operations to Hong Kong, where it works to offer a non-censored service.

"Created the world's most sophisticated censorship machine"

The problems with information suppression in China have been described by Harvard Dean John Palfrey; "There is a long standing tradition of using code to evade censorship in China, so that goes on. The trouble is the Chinese government has created the world's most sophisticated censorship machine" But China is not the only country outside of the West that has an increasing problem with online censorship and freedom of information.

Iran follows closely on China's heels in being the second worst country in the world for web censorship. Up until the election of President Adhmadinejad in 2005 Iran had a free internet and had the second highest rate of internet usage in the Middle East after Israel. In 2006, the Iranian government installed their own version of Smartfilter in order to restrict access to what is perceived to be anti-social/anti-Islamic content. The Iranian government has now written their own blacklist of 15,000 websites which citizens are forbidden to access. This is in addition to another 5 million sites that are considered immoral.

"Networks such as Twitter were used to organise rallies"

Iran however, has also served as an example of how the internet, and social networking in particular can be used to fight censorship and oppression in general. The web was widely used by protesters following the parliamentary elections in 2009 that are widely believed to have been rigged in favour of Adhmadinejad.

Social networks such as Twitter were used to organise rallies and protests while also appealing to support from the wider world. Due to a media crackdown and the difficulty for foreign journalists to get into the country, social networks were also the main supply of news in the aftermath of the elections. #Irannews was the most popular hashtag on Twitter as news of shootings spread naturally from person to person across the web.

A picture showing a mass protest of Iranian citizens during the failed revolution in 2009

In the West, proxy servers were set up to help the protesters communicate and organise themselves. Youtube was used to show videos, including the notorious footage of a young protester being shot and dying on camera.

While the protests ultimately failed to change Iran, social networks proved that they could be used to combat and bypass censorship. They were used to much greater effect around the Middle East two years later as part of the "Arab Spring" protests in 2011. But can social networking penetrate the far deeper set and more sophisticated "Golden Shield" of China?

So far the evidence suggests that the answer is no, for now. Even while companies like Google try to offer a free alternative, others like Baidu simply fill the gap with many web users being left none the wiser. With the current threat of censorship growing in the West as well as the East, perhaps we have something to learn from the Iranians and those that took part in the Arab Spring. China is currently the most censored nation on earth, but if the democratic populations aren't careful, and more bills like SOPA and PIPA come to pass, we might have to learn how to bypass such great firewalls ourselves.

Stephen Leonard