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Filtered Internet for China

According to an empirical analysis, the Chinese government blocks thousands of websites - but often a system can hardly be recognized

According to a new study, China is said to have the toughest censorship on the Internet. More and more states are trying to use filters to "adapt" the Internet to national legislation. Of course, authoritarian states are particularly vulnerable to censorship. China, in any case, also far surpasses Saudi Arabia in terms of the number of websites blocked (oh sir, I prefer prison to what you invite me to do).

The Internet is a gateway to the world through which information can not only come in, but also leak out. Both could cause unrest, especially since an unimaginable amount of information is accessible via the Internet and at the same time it enables global communication, while national legislation does not have access to content that is posted on the Internet from other countries. By filtering the content, the Chinese government is trying on the one hand to exploit the primarily economic potential of the Internet, but to avoid the social changes that may come with it.

The empirical study by scientists at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University was carried out as part of a project that aims to investigate filtering on the Internet worldwide. Studies are already available on the practice in Saudi Arabia, but also on the suppression of search results on Google in France and Germany (the world is by no means everything that Google lists). In China, as usual, there is no published list of websites that are being blocked. But it has become known that foreign providers of Internet services such as Yahoo (Reporters Without Borders criticize Yahoo) had to commit to voluntary self-censorship in writing in March of this year (China closes the network).

In a recent report, Amnesty International accused American companies such as Sun, Nortel, Cisco, Microsoft and Websense of monitoring and censoring Internet use in China. Allegedly 30,000 employees would monitor websites, chat rooms and emails. Many internet cafes had to close and install the remaining filters for more than half a million websites with prohibited pornographic and subversive content.

Jonathan Zittrain and Benjamin Edelman conducted a large number of tests between May and November 2002 to determine the extent of the censorship. Of the 204,000+ websites they visited, more than 50,000 were inaccessible in at least one location in China at a time. The websites were selected on the basis of directories such as Yahoo! Taiwan or search results from Google, after entering "China freedom", for example. selected all websites under the categories of Education, Entertainment, Politics or News. In order to exclude those websites that could accidentally be inaccessible for technical reasons, the scientists only considered those websites to be blocked that could not be accessed by at least two different proxy servers on two days, but were accessible from the USA at the same time were. This was still 18,931 sites, including 3,284 websites from Taiwan alone.

The blocked websites are also pornographic, although they are not in the foreground. It was based on almost 750 websites with sexually explicit images found using Google. Of these, 100 (13.4 percent) were blocked in China. However, the study of Saudi Arabia showed that 695 of these websites were blocked there (86.2 percent). Commercial filter programs block between 70 and 90 percent of these websites. There does not seem to be a particularly systematic approach in China. The websites of Playboy and Penthouse are blocked, but not those of Hustler Magazine.

Otherwise, there will be numerous, very diverse websites with news and from political or religious organizations. Websites of human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch or Hong Kong Voice of Democracy are just as inaccessible as those of Falun Gong. Some universities are closed to Chinese Internet users. The BBC is always inaccessible, as is often the case with CNN or the Times Magazine. A total of 923 websites were blocked, which are listed under Yahoo's "News and Media" section. However, some websites, such as the Washington Post, have also been made accessible again. The scientists suspect that with the introduction of filter technologies that can be used to block individual pages, the entire offer no longer has to be made inaccessible. Usually, however, entire IP addresses are blocked. Overall, it is not very clear which criteria are actually used. For example, the Pentagon is blocked, but not the CIA. Some dishes are also closed to the Chinese.

Apparently all Taiwanese and Tibetan websites are consequently blocked. But why the website of the film "Deep Impact" cannot be expected of the Chinese is not clear. The website of the Asian American Baptist Church, for example, but also that of the Atheist Network is blocked. The blockades are also different in different regions of China. The methods are just as different. Google's search results are also censored. However, the listed pages do not have to be accessible if, for example, corresponding terms appear in the domain name or finally on the HTML pages called up.

According to their data, the scientists assume that, unlike Saudi Arabia, there is no fixed list of censored websites. At least they're always kept up to date, while some sites like CNN or Slashdot are sometimes blocked and sometimes not. New pages are captured quickly. However, the principle remains unclear. The scientists want to find out in future analyzes whether the blocked websites change depending on the current political orientation of the government and how quickly this happens. However, it is certain that different methods will be experimented with, which indicates the importance of Internet censorship for the Chinese government. (Florian Rötzer)

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