Friday, April 15, 2005

Online Censorship in China

Like many, I believe that the efforts of China's communist regime to combine Leninist dictatorship with a globalized free market economy are doomed to failure, a desperate attempt to square the circle. The unfettered access to information and decentralized decision making required of a capitalist economy will ultimately undermine China's one-party authoritarian state, or so the theory goes. Unfortunately, it seems that the Chinese communist approach is working, at least in the short term. As the Washington Post reported on Thursday, China's attempts to censor Internet content have been so successful that they provide a possible model for other repressive regimes:

The Chinese government is succeeding in broadly censoring what its citizens can read on the Internet, surprising many experts and denting U.S. government hopes that online access would be a quick catalyst for democratic political reform.

Internet users in the world's most populous country are routinely blocked from sites featuring information on subjects such as Taiwanese independence, the Falun Gong movement, the Dalai Lama and the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989, according to a study to be released today by a consortium of researchers from Harvard University, the University of Toronto and Cambridge University in England.

The study, which evaluated China's Internet practices over the past year, found the government employed an aggressive array of tactics, including blocking certain keyword searches and whole Web sites, and forcing cyber-cafes to keep records of users and the Web pages they visit.

"China operates the most extensive, technologically sophisticated and broad-reaching system of Internet filtering in the world," the study said.

Researchers said they worry that China's censorship system could become a model for other countries looking to keep the lid on Internet use.

As someone who supports the idea of the Internet as a powerful tool of free expression, it is disturbing to see how easily it can be controlled by a dictatorial regime. However, that is not the most troubling part of the article:

Chinese authorities perform these tasks largely using U.S. hardware and software.

For example, Cisco Systems Inc. routers, machines that move Internet traffic around, are capable of recognizing individual portions of data, a technology that helps battle worms and viruses. That same technology can be used to distinguish certain content.

Companies such as Cisco and Google Inc. have been accused of aiding China's censorship by tailoring their products to suit the government's needs. The study did not confirm those allegations, which the companies have denied.

Lenin reportedly once predicted that capitalists would sell the rope that would be used to hang them. This seems like yet another example.


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