China’s Internet Censorship ExplainedWritten by Julen Madariaga on January 22nd, 2009
Since I started posting about censorship I’ve noticed that the basics of the system are not clearly understood by many readers outside China. This post is to classify and explain the system in the most simple way possible. It is largely drawn from my own experience as a user in China and from the studies by Rebecca Mackinnon.
The internet censorship in China is a complex system in constant evolution, both technologically and in terms of the content censored. It is managed by the State Council Information Office - Internet Management Division. Until recently it was mostly referred to by foreigners as the Great FireWall of China (GFW), but today the name of Net Nanny is more in use, especially since studies like this one exposed the limitations of the GFW metaphor.
In fact, both names can be used, as they refer to different mechanisms of the censorship system and they help visualize the basics for non China-dwellers. Man gave names to all the animals, and let’s give clear names to these ones too so that we can avoid further confusion. China’s Censorship system is composed of: the Net Nanny, the Great Firewall (GFW), and the Search Engines Manipulation (SEM). Note the important differences between the three, which can be summarized as follows:
- the Nanny eliminates content, by forcing self-censorship.
- The GFW blocks content from access in mainland China.
- The SEM hides content, making sites unsearchable/invisible.
These three elements or any combination of them are currently used to censor content on the Chinese internet.
1- The Net Nanny
Like a nanny does with naughty kids, the government scolds rebellious citizens who publish content of “vulgar” or political nature. The Net Nanny is the mechanism that controls content by putting pressure on the publishers to self-censor. Of course, Net Nanny methods are only applied when publishers are in some way subject to the power of the Chinese government. Normally because either they are Chinese, have business in China, or have their websites hosted in China.
The Nanny’s power comes from its ability to close down a website, take away the business license or directly impose “stern punishment” on offenders. The Nanny monitors compliance using a large human workforce aided by sophisticated devices that sweep or sniff the data moving about the Chinese internet. She regularly warns the publishers, either privately or in public inquisitorial lists that make the headlines in Western media.
Final users suffer the Nanny in one of the two following ways:
- The site where they read/publish content is found non-compliant and closed down, like recently happened to bullog.
- The site where they read/publish content is self-censoring, erasing individual user’s content or refusing to publish it.
In all cases, content censored or “harmonized” by the Nanny is not accessible from anywhere, regardless of the use of coded connections. This content is not blocked, but simply eliminated from the internet.
2- The Great Firewall of China (GFW)
The Great Firewall is a different creature altogether, although closely related. It is another tool that the Information Office uses to control access to content. As opposed to the Nanny, the GFW is not directly based on human interaction, but rather on a series of technological devices that are able to detect the sensitive content entering the Chinese internet and block it, whether the original site is in China or not. Depending on the devices used, the GFW can come in different flavours, such as “Reset Connection” or “Time Out”, but the result is always the same: the page cannot load in mainland China.
The blocks applied by the Great Firewall of China are often very quick, automated, and without previous notice to the publishers. In fact, it can happen that the owners of the site go for a long time without noticing, especially if China is not an important part of their business.
Other characteristics of the GFW are:
- It is only visible to users in mainland China.
- It is erratic and unpredictable, block can last hours or years.
- It is easy to bypass using coded connections, like VPN or web proxies.
- It can affect a single post, a website or a whole host/subnet.
- GFW often tries to disguise itself as technical problems of the Chinese network.
GFW is the most annoying part of the Chinese censorship. One might think it is worthless, since it can be bypassed by widely available free proxies. In fact it is extremely effective, due to a mixture of laziness and lack of information of the public. Using myself as an example, there are some excellent blogs I had not visited for months just to avoid the (minor) hassle of connecting through proxy. How many Chinese would go out of their way to access political documents like Chrter 08 that they’ve never heard of and they cannot locate in their Search Engines anyway? (see below SEM)
But the worst aspect of GFW is that it embodies the complete lack of respect of the censors for the individual rights of the users. Indeed, to avoid access to a few pages, the GFW regularly blocks whole subnets without previous notice, affecting thousands of users that had nothing to do with the non-compliance in the first place. There are many examples of this, one of them is the major blog hosting service “Blogger”, which has been blocked in China for years.
3- The Search Engine Manipulation (SEM)
This is the part of the censorship system specifically dedicated to Search Engines. Technically it is not a new mechanism, but a caffeinated Net Nanny applied to Search. The main difference lies in the essential role of the Search Engines in directing internet traffic, and the enormous potential for manipulaton that Search Result lists provide. Note that SEM refers only to the List of Search Results itself, and not to the possible blocks happening when clicking on one of the individual resuts, which would belong to point (2) above.
When an internet user looks for a term in a Search Engine, he is trusting this Engine to bring him the most relevant results for that Search. A List of Search Results that is manipulated to show only what the government wants to show is one of the most powerful tools of deception, and one that is less obvious to the final user than the plain blocking of websites. The websites that don’t appear on the list are not perceived as “censored”, they are simply nonexistent.
Like any other websites, the Search Engines can suffer the 2 kinds of censorship described above.
1- They “harmonize” their Result Lists, following the Nanny. This is properly SEM.
2- They get some Search Strings blocked by the GFW. This is just a URL block of the GFW.
Note that, while (1) is a flagrant case of Search Engines actively collaborating with the system, in (2) it is the URL of the search that trips the GFW, and the Search Engine’s responsibility if any is ony passive (ie. they don’t fight against it) (*). As far as I have seen, all the search engines based in China, including Google, Yahoo and Baidu practice SEM, the most form of censorship. I already did a little study of SEM recently where you can see some results.
(*)UPDATE: Following suggestions by international expert Nart Villeneuve: I have introduced a few changes of my own in my SEM post. It is very important to understand the role of Search Engines in GFW censorship: to get the details of this complex question you should read proper research papers like this one, or this one.
Also by same author a suggestion of what could be the 4th and newest animal in the Censor’s farm: application-specific censorship such as the censoring of IM’s by qq and Skype.
UPDATE2: Coming back to this post one year later I realize that I have learnt a lot since then, and I have corrected a few details. There are also some aspects that are missing, like details about how the GFW works, the IP, URL and keyword blocks, etc. which I learnt when this blog was GFWed in June 09. You can read all about that in the comprehensive instructions I did after I managed to unblock it.
NOTE: Comments and corrections welcome. Also please let me know if something is not clear enough so I can edit/clarify.