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Ars Technica

As Olympics begin, China's open Internet nowhere to be seen

July 30, 2008, Ars Technica

China has apparently backed out of its repeated promise that the Internet would be open and accessible for journalists to use during this summer's Olympic Games, scheduled to begin next week. Reporters from around the world have already begun arriving in Beijing in preparation for the Games, and have already begun running into Internet problems at the Main Press Centre. Although the International Olympic Committee says it's investigating the issue, it appears as if even the IOC has resigned itself to the fact that reporters may just have to live with being restricted during the Games.
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The saga started some seven years ago, when China agreed as part of its host city agreement to allow journalists to report on the Olympics as freely as they would anywhere else—this included unfettered access to the Internet. The issue lay mostly dormant until this year as preparations for the Games began ramping up, with the IOC reminding China in April of its obligations to lift its now-infamous censorship practices online. At that time, everyone involved seemed to believe that China would follow through. "On all issues where that's been concerned they've lived up to the (host city) agreement, so we don't see any reason why they'd step back from that now," said IOC coordination commission vice chairman Kevan Gosper.

Such wide-eyed optimism didn't last very long, though, as China admitted only a month later that it couldn't guarantee an entirely open Internet during the Olympics. Officials said that, while they would try to give as much access as possible to journalists, certain parts of the Great Firewall would have to remain on in order to protect the youth from "unhealthy" websites. China defended its decision by pointing out that it's not the only country to filter the Internet. This may be true in the grand scheme of things, but those other countries haven't openly agreed to allow unrestricted access to the Internet for the 2008 Olympic Games.

Now is China's moment of truth, just one week before the Olympics are set to begin, and things aren't looking very good. Foreign journalists arriving in Beijing have complained of extremely slow Internet connections and the inability to access certain websites (such as Amnesty International's and the BBC's China pages), which some believe could be a ploy to discourage Internet use, according to the Guardian. We were able to confirm through WebSitePulse's Great Firewall test that a number of websites are indeed inaccessible in Beijing—especially those that contain less-than-flattering information about China's human rights practices or censorship. Additionally, Reuters reports that the media has experienced "continuing harassment" by Chinese officials. Whatever is going on, it's not good, and will only continue to get worse as thousands more journalists trickle into Beijing in time for the Games to start.

Even Gosper can't seem to figure out what's going on and what the IOC's stance is on it. On the one hand, he told Reuters that the IOC was looking into the matter and that it was of utmost importance that the media be able to report on the Olympics as they have at previous Games. He added that wherever that's not happening, it will be taken up with Chinese authorities. "As I've said before, this is a country that does have censorship within its media, but we've been guaranteed free access, open media activity for media reporting on the Olympic Games at Games time," Gosper said. "We are now in Games time."

On the other hand, Gosper's comments to the Guardian seem to acknowledge that the IOC has conceded to Chinese authorities. "The regulatory changes we negotiated with Bocog [Beijing Olympic Games], and which required Chinese legislative changes were to do with reporting on the games," Gosper told the paper. "This didn't necessarily extend to free access and reporting on everything that relates to China."

Needless to say, the media (perhaps the last group of people you want to irk) is not happy with the situation. Although some reporters appear to be frustrated with China's restrictions, others are pointing their fingers directly at the IOC. After all, it's the IOC's responsibility to make sure host cities comply with the agreement, and the organization has had years to work with China on this issue.

Reporters Without Borders is one of those parties that puts blame on the IOC. "Reporters Without Borders condemns the cynicism of the Chinese authorities, who have yet again lied, and the IOC's inability to prevent this situation because of its refusal to speak out for several years," the organization said in a statement.

Reporters Without Borders also posted a guide today, containing tips for reporters covering sensitive issues in China during the Games. It recommends that journalists install programs that will let them circumvent the Great Firewall and suggests they never leave their equipment in an accessible state in a hotel room. The organization also recommends against using the services of Chinese translators or guides, as they could prevent reporters from receiving the information they're looking for, and they could endanger sources.

"When making phone calls or sending e-mails, bear in mind that there is no guarantee of confidentiality. Use several SIM cards, especially when contacting 'sensitive' people," says the group.

Sounds like reporting on the Olympics should be great fun for all involved.