Countering China's Internet Censors

As the Chinese government restricts access to controversial Web sites in the runup to the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, the country's Web surfers are finding creative ways around the censors. Companies that offer technologies for viewing blocked sites and hiding online communications say they have seen a spike in demand over the past month.

As the June 4 date approached, the government clamped down on a range of Web sites and services. Google's (GOOG) YouTube video service was rendered inaccessible, as was the Twitter microblogging service. Microsoft (MSFT) saw its brand-new search engine, Bing, walled off from Chinese users. And more than 400 hundred blogs have been taken offline or delisted from the popular Chinese search engine, (BIDU). "There was this whole wave of shutdowns over the past few days," says Alex Miller, director of marketing for software developer Global Web Security, in a phone interview from his office in Beijing. "It's been very serious."

Global Web Security creates software to encrypt e-mail so that the content of messages is indecipherable to governments and hackers. Miller says the number of visitors to his company's site started to rise at the first signs of government tightening in late March and surged in recent days. "When the government does these types of crackdowns, when they start shutting things off, people feel like they want to improve their privacy," says Miller. "Right now is a really good time for our business."

social networking scares the censors

Web surfers are also finding ways to view forbidden sites. One way is to use proxy-server software, which masks the Internet Protocol (IP) address of blocked Web sites. Dynamic Software Technology—which makes a version of the software called Freegate that is specifically designed to circumnavigate Chinese censors—experienced a 20% increase in downloads from China in the past week. "We saw record traffic yesterday, and today is beating that record," says Bill Xia, president of the U.S. company.

Xia says his company saw a similar spike in traffic last October, when Communist Party officials were being selected during the 17th National Congress and similar Internet restrictions came into place.

What's different this time, say Chinese activists and bloggers, is the government's heightened sensitivity to social networking sites and Web 2.0 technologies. "You can mobilize people with the most innocent-looking message, like, 'Let's all wear white today,'" said Sasha Gong, a Chinese blogger who now lives in Virginia and says she was imprisoned for her writings during the Cultural Revolution. "Before you know it, an entire city is wearing white and you have a movement. But the government would look laughable if they went out and arrested the original person for putting up a message that says 'Wear white.'"

Censoring Bing: a compliment of sorts

Twitter appears to be especially problematic for Chinese authorities. The service allows people to send messages of up to 140 characters to hundreds or even thousands of followers instantaneously. "Authorities are particularly worried about Twitter because it's a quick-response tool for Netizens to talk about anything," said Michael Anti, a Beijing-based Chinese journalist and popular blogger. "It's 140 characters, so it's fast. [Individual] censorship requires a centralized decision by officials and that takes time. By the time the censor realizes the message is dangerous, there have already been responses, and it's spreading all over the Internet."

Web video may be another concern for the Chinese government because the technology of sites such as YouTube allows videos to be easily shared and posted in various places. The banning of Bing may actually be a nod to the search engine's effectiveness. Activists say Bing is particularly good at searching out Web video—perhaps better than Google or Baidu—and they speculate that this may be one reason it has been shut off in the country.

The quashing of the 1989 student protest is still a taboo subject in China. It isn't taught in schools and doesn't appear in official state histories or documents. But the popularity of blogs and Web communications makes it difficult to maintain complete silence about the topic. "Blogs are very hard to control," says Liu Suli, owner of a popular Beijing bookstore and writer of a Chinese-language political blog, through an interpreter. "Even when you shut one down it can appear somewhere else. The party feels it needs to stop the younger generation from finding out about 1989, but blogs are becoming very influential." (His may be blocked.)

Liu Suli spoke from his house in Beijing, and said that during the interview seven policemen were standing near his front door, monitoring his movements. "I am used to it," he says. "Every year near this date is like this."

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