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Face to Face With The Great Firewall of China

As the Internet was taking flight in the early 1990s, John Gilmore, one of the co-founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a leading online civil liberties group, is credited with having coined the infamous phrase that “the Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”  Gilmore’s view has since been regularly invoked whenever there are failed attempts to limit the dissemination of information.

Beginning with a string of cases dating back to the Paul Bernardo trial in the mid-1990s, the Internet has undermined court-ordered publication bans in Canada with surprising frequency. The latest incident occurred last month when a U.S. website posted evidence from the Gomery inquiry that was subject to a publication ban.  The ban was lifted within days, however, as Judge Gomery acknowledged what had become obvious to all – supposedly secret testimony was readily available to anyone with Internet access.

While these events seemingly affirm the notion that the Internet is beyond the reach of governments and courts, my recent trip to China provided a powerful reminder that unfettered Internet access is far more fragile than is commonly perceived.  China, which boasts the world’s second largest Internet user base, is currently home to more than 94 million Internet users, yet their Internet is far different from ours.

These differences are not immediately obvious.  My hotel in Beijing featured high-speed Internet access much like that offered in hotels throughout North America.  Logging onto the network was a snap and I quickly found that bandwidth speeds were comparable to those found at home.

It was once I sought to access common news sites that I found myself face to face with the “Great Firewall of China.”  Google News, a popular aggregator of news stories from around the world, would not load into my browser, apparently blocked by a filtering system that employs 30,000 people to regularly monitor Internet traffic and content.  Similarly, while the BBC website would load, attempts to access news stories on that site yielded only error messages.

My frustration increased when I attempted to download my own email.  While I was able to access my Canadian-based mail server storing my messages, the download was short-circuited midway as I suddenly lost the connection.  Although I initially thought that perhaps the error lay at the Canadian end, when the experience repeated itself, it became clear that the Chinese system was filtering my email messages and cutting off the connection.

Having experienced limits in accessing both news and email, it came as little surprise to find that the search engines were subject to similar restrictions.  Searches for articles on circumventing the Chinese filters yielded a long list of results, none of which could be opened.  Moreover, inputting politically sensitive words such as the “Falun Gong” cut me off from the search engines completely.

While I found using the Chinese Internet exceptionally frustrating, most people I spoke to were resigned to an Internet with limits.  They live with the fact that in recent months the government has shut down thousands of Internet cafes, an important point of access for many citizens.  Many noted that the censorship “only” affected political information, but that business could be conducted online unimpeded.  At one academic conference, Chinese law professors even spoke of the desirability of increased content regulation and supported government limits on search engine results.

As groups such as Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders regularly seek to remind us, the Chinese Internet is not unique.  Countries throughout the Middle East and in parts of Asia employ similar technologies to limit their citizens’ access to a medium that most Canadians now take for granted. 

It would be a mistake, however, to think that the Canadian Internet will always remain just as free as China’s is censored.  Canadian law enforcement officials are actively lobbying for a series of “lawful access” reforms that will provide authorities with dramatically increased Internet surveillance powers.  These include mandating real-time network surveillance capabilities on Canada’s biggest Internet service providers and providing authorities with the right to demand subscriber information without the need to obtain a prior court order. 

While it would be unfair to characterize the lawful access proposal as comparable to the monitoring and censorship used in the Chinese Internet, my experience provided a sobering reminder of the dangers inherent in increased surveillance and weakened judicial oversight.

The Internet may be accessible from Toronto to Beijing, yet people in these two cities do not access the same Internet.  The challenge in the months and years ahead will be to promote Gilmore’s vision of online freedom through lobbying for greater access abroad and rejecting unnecessary and potentially dangerous limits at home.

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