Behind the ‘Great Firewall’: Internet Censorship in the People’s Republic of China

Recognising the huge and growing importance of the Internet as a vehicle for facilitating in practice the free flow of information and ideas that lies at the heart of the right to freedom of expression’

– Preamble, International Mechanisms for Promoting Freedom of Expression – Joint Declaration by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media and the OAS Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression

In fact, a new term was coined to refer to the citizens the world over who interact through the Internet and participate in social, economic and political discussion on an unprecedented global scale; they are the ‘netizens’ and there are now more than 400 million of them in the People’s Republic of China.

Recently, social media websites have been credited with abetting revolution in North Africa and the Middle East. As one protester tweeted during the uprising in Egypt, “We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world”.  All three sites are currently blocked in China. Chinese equivalents do exist, such as the social networking site RenRen, a Facebook equivalent, but with one major difference; it operates behind what is known widely in the media as ‘the Great Firewall’ of China.  

A combination of URL filtering with keyword censoring, the Great Firewall is the expression of China’s assertion of sovereignty over the Internet:

‘Citizens of the People’s Republic of China and foreign citizens, legal persons and other organizations within Chinese territory have the right and freedom to use the Internet; at the same time, they must obey the laws and regulations of China and conscientiously protect Internet security.’ (White Paper on the Internet, published 8 June 2010)

In a 2006 report, Human Rights Watch states that ‘political censorship is built into all layers of China’s Internet infrastructure’ and so the Great Firewall is also a symbol of the institutionalization of censorship and one quickly realises that surveillance of communications is pervasive in the People’s Republic of China.

One of the most notorious example of this, is the case of the Chinese journalist Shi Tao who was convicted of “leaking state secrets abroad” and sentenced to ten years in prison after Yahoo! handed over user information from his Yahoo.com.cn email account to Chinese authorities. Yahoo! responded to criticism by arguing that it was only complying with local laws and regulations. In their eagerness for a share of China’s ever growing Internet market, foreign Internet and telecom companies have in most cases chosen to participate in China’s censorship regime and in some cases to facilitate the violation of human rights in China.

The rumours circulating about a possible joint venture between Facebook and Baidu, China’s number one search engine company, to create a social-networking site tailored for the Chinese market, makes one wonder : will Facebook’s new joint-venture website get a ‘Like’ from China’s censorship authorities behind the Great Firewall?

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