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MacWorld UK

The Great Firewall of China

April 2, 2008, MacWorld UK

Possibly the world's greatest named tech product ever: "The Great Firewall of China" (also known as the "Golden Shield") is China's answer to the free press of the world.

It's even got its own mascot, called Jinjing, the friendly (thought) police officer:

Here's a list of words Jingjing thinks are bad and doesn't like you tapping into Google: 'democracy', 'human rights', 'massacre', 'genocide', 'reeducation through labor'. You can find a full list here on Wikipedia - unless you're in China of course, in which case you're out of luck because Wikipedia is completely banned, as is YouTube, and most international press sites.

Macworld.co.uk is fine though - part of me feels like we're not trying hard enough. You can test your website for Chinese access here.

It's easy to have a cheap laugh at the Chinese government. Especially when you don't live there. The Great Firewall of China and Jinjing are ridiculous enough to bring a smile to the most embittered journalist's face - although I'm pretty sure Shao Tao, who's currently serving 10 years in jail after Yahoo gave the Chinese government his IP address isn't laughing.

I've never been to China, but I gather it is in many ways a bad place to live. But hey, most Western people (whether right or wrong) already think that and I'm not going to change the world in this blog. Hopefully the Olympic games will help matters. Several journalists have pointed out that they're going to find it hard to report on the games if they can't access their own newspaper from abroad, and China is thinking of bringing down The Great Firewall of China to allow journalists to witter on about what person won which shiny bauble.

Hopefully once The Great Firewall of China is down it'll stay down, after all, it must be a real pain to monitor the whole internet. I've often thought that running a ruthless dictatorship or setting up and maintaining a beaurocratic dystopia must be more effort than it's worth.

No. My real concern today is Phorm, a new web monitoring web service. It transpired today that BT has 'illegally' tested out Phorm on 30,000 of its customers without telling them.

Phorm, for the uninitiated, enables your ISP (Internet Service Provider) to track your online behaviour: what sites you've visited, what sort of things you type into Google, what your emails are all about. All this takes place at the ISP end (BT, TalkTalk and Virgin Media are developing it with Phorm itself) so you never notice it happening: you don't need to install any software, or give your agreement.

What Phorm does is track all your behaviour and pigeonhole you: I'd probably go in the 'Mac enthusiast that likes to go on forums late at night, drunk, and complain that video games aren't as good as when Sega was still making consoles' category; endless Apple and eBay ads for its second-hand games section then: no change there.

This technology has been likened to Royal Mail opening your mail, reading your letters and making a note of everything you read and write just to ensure you get a better class of junk mail. But in my mind it's far more insidious than that.

Advertising doesn't bother me. Even targetted ads don't really bother me. But the technology behind this system creeps me out. Phorm is being allowed to develop this technology because its aims are - apparently - benign.

On its website Phorm states that all of this is okay, because: "our technology doesn't store any personally identifiable information or IP addresses, and we don't retain information on user browsing behaviour."

Well that's okay then. The fact that your ISP is recording every tap of your keyboard is okay because it has kindly agreed to delete your name from its records.

Whatever happened to the idea of a bit of privacy in your life? And don't give me that nothing to hide nothing to fear nonsense. Tell it to Shao Tao in his Chinese jail.

What really worries me though isn't BT, Virgin Media or Talk-Talk turning into the world's most efficient spammers. It's if a product like Phorm makes its way out of the commercial test-bed and into the offices of governments around the world. Governments like the Chinese, I suppose, but also I worry about my government taking a shine to it. Considering the number of CCTV cameras in this country I wouldn't put it past them. There are now 30 CCTV cameras within 200 yards of George Orwell's London flat. The UK government is also arming CCTV cameras with microphones and speakers, so police officers can remotely shout at transgressors. What a depressing thought.

Phorm could be a powerful tool for the governement with a desire to categorise its citizens. You could slot them into Labour, Conservative or Lib Dem (Democratic, Republican and Ralph Nadir's Green Party for our American guests); I suppose you could think of all sorts of categories: harmless, patriotic, protestor, dissident, terrorist…

An interesting thing I've noted is that China refers to The Great Firewall of China as the Golden Shield. And isn't it funny how every time somebody wants to take away one of your hard-earned freedoms they make out that they're protecting you. The CCTV cameras are there for our protection. That Phorm system could be a powerful tool in the War On Terror.

I don't like Phorm. I don't like the idea behind it and I don't like where it could go.

Now, I'm not foolish enough to think that I can change the world. I'm the editor of a Mac magazine and website and all I really do is convince people to buy good products from bad ones. And there are billions of people in the world and only 300,000 or so individuals read our site every month. We're proud of our figures but they aren't really that big in the overall scheme of things.

But here's the thing. Our research tells us that our readers (that's you) are 'influential to other users'. In other words. They're the sort of people who friends phone up and say, "can I ask your advice on something". Before saying "I was thinking of buying…"

So, for the record I switched ISP this week. I went from Madasafish (who I still wholeheartedly recommend) to O2. The 20meg line with unlimited usage deal discounted to £15 per month for O2 customers (I own an iPhone) was too good to pass up.

What I specifically did not do was sign up with BT, Virgin Media or Talk-Talk.