The great firewall of China


lij-chinese-padlock.jpg We were out and about in the mountains for the last couple of days and it seems the censors have been busy in the meantime.

Upon our return, the BBC website and the Guardian have been censored: only the main page was accessible last night. Other western media work sporadically. English speaking medias seem to have been affected most as French newspaper Le Monde and Qatar based Arabic news site Al Jazeera seem to work fine.

The Chinese authorities are also targetting popular blog platforms such as Blogger/Blogspot and WordPress in order to prevent foreigners from reporting about the events. Some servers of the popular French blog platform OverBlog have also been blocked.

The Chinese authorities are still particularly concerned about videos and photos made by tourists from their cell phones or digital cameras. They have realised that monitoring the online newspapers was not sufficient as the foreign media extensively fed on amateur footage to report on the issue. As a result, access to YouTube has been suspended and most Google Videos cannot be viewed.

Needless to say that websites about Human Rights such as Amnesty International or Tibet are permanently blocked, as well as the open content online encyclopedia WikiPedia.

SkypeOut, the popular software to make phone calls over the Internet, is also unusable for PC-to-phone calls on my PC – I cannot even log in. I have been told the reason is commercial not political: it competes with the local telecom operators and is said to be at odds with the strict Chinese regulations in regards to telecommunications. Like in other countries, the fact that Skype is utilising the telecommunication infrastructures without sharing the cost does not please the Chinese authorities either; this may be for this reason and to be in compliance with domestic law that Skype decided to launch a joint-venture with TOM Online, a Chinese Internet company in 2005.

But we have reasons to be suspicious. First, users in China can only download the Skype version provided by TOM. Although, I could not verify this, this version is suspected to contain censorware, built-in software used for censorship, which can monitor and report users’ activities to the Chinese government. I also note that other countries which attempted to block Skype such as Panama, UAE and Syria do not have good Human Rights records either. Syria in particular is notorious for Internet censorship.

It is sometimes hard to know what is being censored. Some sites can be inexplicably slow in a manner that official Chinese sites aren’t. When a site is blocked, a typical ‘Page Not Found’ message is returned so we could easily mistake censored content for a technical issue or an outdated link. One way to know is to use western search engines such as Google or Yahoo, the English results do not seem not censored.

Friends in Beiling reported having trouble from time to time accessing the BBC or CNN on satellite TV. In the past, connection problems would be blamed on technical issues.

I was asked whether I had troubled accessing my email or blog. The short answer is no. I use secure channels for my emails using my own server in the US independently from popular email and blog tools; and I am travelling with my laptop. This keep it all out of sight. Other travellers have reported having trouble with their blog, but not their email.

Foreigners in China are supposed to declare their laptop with the State Encryption Management Commission; this is to prevent the release of “state secrets”. Of course it is highly impractical and never enforced as many business people travel in and out of China with their laptop; but these law could theoratically be used to confiscate laptops or prevent journalist from disseminating information. This is one of the many Internet regulations in place in China which are not enforced, but used to prosecute when needed.