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Olympics FAQ: Beijing Internet Censorship and Surveillance

June 27, 2008

Posted by Graham Webster
CNet (USA)
June 25, 2008

Sinobyte commenters raised two good questions about internet freedom
during the Olympics in Beijing from Aug. 8-28. I'm going to give the
best kind of answer available for each: educated guess.

I had written about "free Wi-Fi," which hasn't yet really started
working, but is slated to be available during the Games in some key
areas of the city. Commenter DangerousOffender asks:

How "free" will the access be? Will users be able to access the
entire internet, or will it be censored?

I was referring, of course, to "free of charge," but this is a good
question. In recent years, no public internet connection has been
completely unfiltered. Censorship works in a few different ways: Some
websites are simply blocked at the IP level, making it impossible to
access them without a proxy; Certain sensitive terms in pages, if
detected by filters, can cause the connection to be disrupted; And
sensitive terms that appear as part of a URL can trigger a similar disruption.

In the lead up to the Olympics, many online limitations have been
relaxed. Access to BBC News was restored. Blogspot has been
unblocked, blocked again, and is presently available from this
connection in Beijing. English Wikipedia is available, but Chinese
Wikipedia is still blocked. After pressure from the International
Olympic Committee, the Beijing committee has promised fewer
restrictions, but since some ISPs do the censorship themselves to
avoid trouble with authorities, any "opening" may not trickle down to
every connection.

Rumor has it, anyway, that top hotels full of foreigners and
journalists will have unfettered access. I doubt this will be a
city-wide phenomenon, let alone a national loosening.

JeffW42 asks: Another question: How monitored will it be? Will your
emails be reviewed for "offensive" material, and username and
password stored for later reference?

While we have some guesswork to do on censorship, there's even more
to do on surveillance. Let's focus on capability and relevance.

Capability: Chinese authorities are viewed by many around the world
in governments and other fields as highly capable in infiltrating
computer systems. While the Chinese government denies it every time,
U.S. authorities say attacks of various kinds have come from China.
What's more important is this: We know the government has access to
the gateways between China and the rest of the internet. It should be
assumed that, just as any traffic can be filtered for keywords, any
traffic can be more closely monitored.

Relevance: The fact that authorities could capture your traffic does
not necessarily mean your passwords could be captured. A properly
configured SSL-based password system, standard on most websites,
should make password capture very difficult if not impossible. Though
I am not a security expert, my sense is that this sort of
surveillance would be a very low priority for Chinese authorities.

On the question of reviewing e-mail for content, it seems highly
unlikely that e-mail would be blocked. If you're planning a big
protest or something, however, bet that you and your buddies are on
some kind of list for closer monitoring. Simple measures can make all
communication much more smooth and quick during high-filtering
periods. Users of Gmail, for instance, found that while a normal HTTP
connection was extremely slow during the recent unrest in Tibet,
using SSL by typing in https://mail.google.com/ (the added "s" is the
key) made the connection faster, and e-mails containing sensitive
terms were delivered more consistently.

A LITTLE PERSPECTIVE

Much is made of China's internet restrictions. A few things of note,
before one seizes on this as unique. I'm not trying to argue that the
restrictions are good, but I think a lot of people take this
phenomenon and turn it into an anti-Chinese trope without placing it
in a bit of a context.

     * A study found that most Chinese approved of government
controls over the internet.
     * Several students at elite universities I have met in Beijing
had no idea there was any censorship.
     * The U.S. government, for example, is not exactly free of
programs to monitor its citizens' communications.
     * China has a lot of surveillance cameras, but so does Britain.

Now, if you can get a visa to China, come on over and enjoy the
games. I hear lots of the hotels are wide open.
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