Readers of Yan Sham-Shackleton’s blog know her as “gluttergirl.” But until a week ago, her regular readers in China couldn’t access her blog. The Chinese government had banned it for more than a year. Her pro-democracy writings might have had something to do with this.
The Chinese government is notorious for its aggressive censorship of dissent and obscenity on the Internet. Human Rights Watch produced a report on the country’s Internet surveillance activities in August 2001. Besides China, countries that monitor web surfers’ reading habits include Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Vietnam. But China is the most persistent, says Nart Villeneuve, director of technical research at the OpenNet Initiative, a collaboration of three academic groups that analyzes Internet filtering and surveillance.
For the past year, the Chinese government has been filtering blogs. Censors have filters at all levels, from Internet service providers to Internet cafés. The OpenNet Initiative recently released a study detailing how three Chinese blog providers—blogdriver.com, blogbus.com, and blogcn.com–have filtering mechanisms to control the content of the blogs they host.
“It’s extremely targeted,” says Mr. Villeneuve. “[The Chinese government] implements filtering and information control at various levels that overlap with each other. That forms a matrix.”
The matrix catches words and information that the Chinese government doesn’t want its citizens, or foreign residents, to read or talk about. They could be words as innocent as “making” and “naïve.” “Sex,” of course, is a bad word. So are more obvious offenders like “falun” and “Tibettalk.”
Last year, the Chinese government shut down two blogging services, Blogbus and Blogcn, but reopened them soon after. “Most governments don’t want to stop everything on the web. Most governments do want the economic benefits of an open Internet,” says John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, which is part of the OpenNet Initiative. The other two groups that make up the Initiative are the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab and the University of Cambridge’s Advanced Network Research Group.
The reopened services still filter content, but ineffectively, according to the report. Blogbus only caught 18 of the 987 keywords that are on a blacklist discovered in an instant messaging application, while Blogcn filtered 19. Even Blogdriver, the most effective, only filtered 350.
John Morris, director of the Internet Standards, Technology and Policy Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology, says filtering based on keywords usually would be ineffective, because people can get around keywords by playing with spelling and using acronyms. Maybe the filters aren’t there to filter anything of consequence, though. Some observers say they’re meant to send a message to the Chinese people that everything they publish on the web is under surveillance.
If the Chinese government wants to monitor blogs, it will have to keep up with the frenetic pace at which technology evolves. Business does not rest. Last week, BlogChina.com bought Blogdriver.com. The cat-and-mouse game looks like it’ll continue.