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PC Magazine

China Will Lose the Censorship Game

August 7, 2008, PC Magazine

The greatest game at the 2008 Olympics won't be Michael Phelps's quest for multiple gold medals or the U.S. Men's Basketball team's attempt to redeem its reputation. The real contest won't take place on any field, court, or pool. It will be played on the Internet. Journalists, Olympic spectators, and Chinese citizens will attempt to write, publish, broadcast, and read stories. The Chinese government will attempt to control these stories or stop them entirely. To me, this is the only game worth watching, and I'm going to really enjoy seeing the Chinese government lose.

It wasn't supposed to be this way, of course. When China was wooing the Olympic Committee, the country promised it would offer free access to the press. Just a couple of days ago, International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge boasted in an IOC press conference, "For the first time, foreign media will be able to report freely and publish their work freely in China. There will be no censorship on the Internet." Bold words. And false ones.

When the Olympic Village press center opened this week, the Web sites for Amnesty International, Radio Free Asia, BBC's Chinese-language news, and many more news outlets were blocked. In fact, anything that the Chinese government deemed not in its national interest was forbidden. Forget about anything having to do with the Falun Gong or Tibet. And it doesn't stop there. Reports have claimed that hotel chains have had to install software that allows the government to monitor the Internet communication of its guests. Clearly, the Great Firewall of China is still standing.

No one knows exactly how many cybersnoops the Chinese government keeps on its payroll; the commonly cited figure is around 30,000. To augment the relatively low-tech "fear of imprisonment," the Chinese government uses several techniques to control the flow of information. First, the government uses network sniffers that monitor all the traffic coming in and out of the country's servers. Another technique is to block the DNS entries for specific sites. And although the Great Firewall isn't 100 percent effective, it definitely succeeds at making information difficult to get.

There are a number of tools that will help you find out if your site is blocked by the Great Firewall. I checked out a few URLs with WebSitePulse to see just what the average Chinese citizen could and could not see. PCMag.com works fine. So does Gearlog.com. Freetibet.org? No such luck.

Determining what gets through, and why, must be difficult, and the results often appear to be random. I have a friend who operates an innocent and apolitical travel blog at www.portablemind.typepad.com. Her blog was accessible last year, when she was actually visiting China, but now it's blocked. And that's a shame, because she offers up some great Beijing restaurant recommendations.