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The great firewall of China

If you type the phrase "the great firewall of China" on Google, a warning is flashed by the search engine's administrators: "We've observed that searching for [great firewall] in mainland China may temporarily break your connection to Google.

world Updated: Aug 26, 2012 12:49 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis

If you type the phrase "the great firewall of China" on Google, a warning is flashed by the search engine's administrators: "We've observed that searching for [great firewall] in mainland China may temporarily break your connection to Google. This interruption is outside Google's control." If you take the option "search anyway" the connection is temporarily broken.

This internet filtering system is however more than just virtual and more than just targets criticism against the state or the Communist Party of China and its leaders.

A study in June by Harvard University's Institute for Quantitative Social Science claimed that contrary to previous understandings, "posts with negative, even vitriolic, criticism of the state, its leaders, and its policies are not more likely to be censored."

"Instead, we show that the censorship program is aimed at curtailing collective action by silencing comments that represent, reinforce, or spur social mobilization, regardless of content. Censorship is oriented toward attempting to forestall collective activities that are occurring now or may occur in the future — and, as such, seem to clearly expose government intent, such as examples we offer where sharp increases in censorship presage government action outside the Internet," the writers of the 35-page report claimed after sifting through millions of postings on 1,400 different social media services all over China before the Chinese government is able to find, evaluate and censor (i.e., remove from the Internet) the large subset they deem objectionable.

According to the study, social media is censored in China in at least three ways: The Great Firewall of China," which disallows certain entire web sites from operating in the country, Second is "keyword blocking" which stops a user from posting text that contain banned words or phrases and the third is manual censoring. The study said: "Unlike The Great Firewall and keyword blocking, hand censoring cannot be evaded by clever phrasing: anything obscure enough to evade the censors would also likely evade most of the audience as well. Thus, it is this last and most extensive form of censoring that we focus on in this paper."

And sometimes, the operation of censorship goes beyond just censoring. In March end, authorities detained six persons and shut down 16 websites for allegedly fanning rumours of a coup.

The detention and shut down were ordered because those involved were "fabricating or disseminating online rumours," the State Internet Information Office (SIIO) and Beijing police said. The websites were closed for spreading rumors of "military vehicles entering Beijing and something wrong going on in Beijing," which, according to the authorities, were fabricated by the suspects.

The SIIO spokesperson added that the rumours have caused "a very bad influence on the public."

In July, the executive chairman of Google told Foreign Policy: "I believe that ultimately censorship fails. China's the only government that's engaged in active, dynamic censorship. They're not shy about it."

But there are ways around the censors as well – virtual private networks, which at a price lets you access all banned websites. So, if you have access to a VPN, search anyway.