Made in China: Dodging the Internet Censor

 
 
By Lisa Vaas  |  Posted 2007-10-16 Email Print this article Print
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

An anonymous Internet techie reveals the censors' hand in China, and how those transgressing sites are punished.

Independent-minded Internet users are trying to foil Chinas censors, who themselves seem to be increasing in sophistication.

According to a report by an anonymous technician working for an Internet company in China, the worlds most populous country employs tens of thousands of cyber-censors and cyber-police whose mission is to purge the Internet of anything that might embarrass the government. This network of apparatchiks has been responsible for the arrests of hundreds of Internet users and cyber-dissidents over the past 10 years.
The technician, writing under the pen name of "Mr. Tao," published the investigative report—entitled "Journey to the Heart of Internet Censorship"— under the aegis of the nonprofit organizations Reporters Without Borders and Chinese Human Rights Defenders.
The report describes pervasive, and sometimes self-generated, censorship, abetted by ample manpower and funding that Mr. Tao estimates has grown to some $27 billion in U.S. dollars. The report also notes that there are ways to resist censorship and plenty of Chinese freethinkers are eager to make use of those techniques. Mr. Tao notes the use of proxy servers—be they HTTP, POP3, FTP or SOCKS—to hide a users IP address. In theory, proxy servers could also be used to reach blocked foreign sites, he says. But in practice, Chinas censorship "is so well developed in this respect that it prevents this."
"You have to access sites such as dongtaiwang.com, wujie.net and huayuannetworks.com, which have been dubbed The Three Musketeers," he writes. "They provide many technical tools and services of excellent quality." Other services to get around censorship that Mr. Tao recommends are ziyoumen, huofenghuang, shijietong, hanfeng, wujie liulan, SafeWeb and Tor, a tool set that provides anonymous browsing, publishing, instant messaging, IRC, SSH, and other applications that use the TCP protocol. Mr. Tao also recommends exploiting varying levels of censorship between provinces or between levels in the administration. For example, an author might get away with posting a critical article in the online media in certain provinces, with Beijing being the most restrictive province. Also, smaller news sites often escape sharp scrutiny, he said in the report. Other than that, Chinese Web surfers should adopt a wide array of Internet technologies, he says, such as blogs, discussion forums, Internet telephony, discussion groups, grouped calls, instant messaging, webmail, P2P (peer to peer) and VPN. Web-based feed aggregators such as NewsGator Online reportedly help regain access to RSS feeds. Other tricks to scaling the great firewall of China include an SSH connection to somewhere outside of China or the use of Firefoxs gladder extension, a proxy tool whose motto is, "Get over Great Firewall with Great Ladder!" But such advice is getting staler by the minute, as Chinas censors are getting more technically savvy. For example, at one point, RSS feeds were a simple way for Chinas Internet users to get their hands on forbidden information. Chinas censorship machinery seems to have finally caught on to RSS, however, with reports coming in as early as August of Chinese telecoms blocking FeedBurner RSS feeds. More recently, the Chinese government apparently has extended the block to all URLs that begin with the words "feeds," "rss" and "blog." Censorship and cyber-policing flows down directly from top government levels: specifically, it starts at the seat of government in Zhongnanhai, a complex of buildings in Beijing adjacent to Tiananmen Square which serve as the central headquarters for the Communist Party of China and the government of the Peoples Republic of China. Orders are issued from Zhongnanhai on down to a host of state-run agencies. Employees in Chinas censorship apparatus work in special sections that have been set up in every one of the governments Public Security Bureaus—agencies that handle policing, security and social order. Internet company employees also practice self-censorship and keyword filtering. However, sometimes forbidden material slips in advertently. In such cases, the government may react by criticizing the site, imposing a fine, ordering that the site fire whatever employee is responsible, or forcing a sites section or an entire site to shut down. Ideological control is enforced through certificate-awarding classes on how to fine-tune the skill of the censor as well as through field trips for online companies that include Yahoo and a slew of Chinese companies including search engine makers Baidu and Sohu and the portal companies Sina.com, NetEase, TOM, and Xilu, among others. After their return, the companies executives and editors are expected to write patriotic articles about the field trips, which happen yearly and target locations such as "the place where communism was born." Click here to read about how most malware is made in China. The censors use a host of established communication technologies to constantly give orders about what such companies can publish or what events or issues are off limits, including phone, e-mail, SMS text messages, MSN, Tencent QQ and RTX (Real Time eXchange) instant messaging, Web platforms and a weekly meeting. They expect their orders to be carried out fast, with three levels of urgency that require action within either five, 10 or 30 minutes. Chinas censors prefer to communicate via SMS text messages and MSN instant messaging. Mr. Tao gave the example of two journalists who wrote a series of articles criticizing how an iPod subcontractor—Foxconn of Taiwan—was treating plant workers. Censors sent SMS messages to private sites with instructions that they avoid disseminating reports about the case "so that it is not exploited by those who want independence to advance their cause." The administration prefers that censors eschew MSN, however, given that its run by a foreign country and its orders could come to light. Instead, RTX, which is run by a Chinese company called Tengxun, is the preferred platform for instant messaging. Check out eWEEK.coms Security Center for the latest security news, reviews and analysis. And for insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at eWEEKs Security Watch blog.
 
 
 
 
Lisa Vaas is News Editor/Operations for eWEEK.com and also serves as editor of the Database topic center. Since 1995, she has also been a Webcast news show anchorperson and a reporter covering the IT industry. She has focused on customer relationship management technology, IT salaries and careers, effects of the H1-B visa on the technology workforce, wireless technology, security, and, most recently, databases and the technologies that touch upon them. Her articles have appeared in eWEEK's print edition, on eWEEK.com, and in the startup IT magazine PC Connection. Prior to becoming a journalist, Vaas experienced an array of eye-opening careers, including driving a cab in Boston, photographing cranky babies in shopping malls, selling cameras, typography and computer training. She stopped a hair short of finishing an M.A. in English at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. She earned a B.S. in Communications from Emerson College. She runs two open-mic reading series in Boston and currently keeps bees in her home in Mashpee, Mass.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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