US corporations should stop being complicit in China's cyber censorship, journal editor says

08/10/04

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- It is known as the "Great Firewall of China," and like its counterpart built centuries before, it is intended to block unwanted invaders from the outside world.

The fact that the People's Republic of China goes to great lengths to restrict citizen access to the Internet has been known for years and is part of an official government policy that bars information promoting sex, gambling or politically sensitive material.

What is less well known is how U.S. technology firms have aided in the erection of the government's cyber barrier.

"Prominent American corporations, including Cisco Systems, Microsoft, Nortel Networks, Websense and Sun Microsystems, have all played a part in quickly equipping China with censoring equipment," Jill R. Newbold writes in the Journal of Law, Technology and Policy, which is published by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

"Cisco's firewalls help the Chinese government monitor e-mail; Microsoft proxy servers block Web pages; Nortel aids the Chinese government in tracking its citizens' surfing habits; and Websense contributes sophisticated filtering and monitoring techniques. Democracy, it seems, takes a back seat to profitable markets," concluded Newbold, an editor at the journal.

China's Internet firewall has a number of interlocking components, according to the article. One is the government's ban against accessing or downloading information that goes beyond sexual or gambling content and includes world news, health, entertainment, and such forbidden topics as Tibetan independence and the Falun Gong religious group.

With a limited number of computers in private homes, cyber cafes are a major point of access to the Internet in China. In 2002, the government placed draconian measures on cyber cafes that, among other things, required operators to register all Internet users and maintain records of the information they accessed, available to authorities upon request. Operators also had to install software that filtered out more than 500,000 banned sites.

In addition to user restrictions, the government installed filtering programs to block prohibited information from entering the country. By late 2002, the government had succeeded in blocking selected portions of Web sites and e-mails according to keyword searchers. This kind of precision "firewall" software, known as packet filtering, analyzes each bit and byte entering and leaving a Web site or e-mail account to see if it meets specific programmed criteria.

"These more sophisticated filtering software restrictions can cause selective blocking of e-mails containing certain keywords, create difficulty in accessing foreign sites that use secure connections and continually interrupt searches of specified topics through search engines," Newbold wrote.

Recognizing that censoring millions of Web sites is an overwhelming task, the government also called upon Internet service providers (ISPs) to sign a public pledge not to produce, post or disseminate information that "may jeopardize state security and disrupt social stability" on pain of losing their state licenses to operate.

While Chinese authorities and some U.S. tech companies have argued that the pledge protects intellectual property rights and encourages competition, Newbold argued that the rule has made American institutions complicit in China's cyber censorship. More than 300 corporations, government agencies and universities have signed these agreements, which "throws the Web principles of free speech and access to open information out the window."

If ISPs refuse to pledge compliance with the rules, the article continued, "China would be forced to seek other investors and would be pressured to rethink its regulations. If American companies set the precedence of noncompliance, other countries may follow, forcing China to choose between participation in the global economy or information 'purity' within its borders."

Newbold recommends that Congress nudge corporate America to do the right thing by making explicit that access to information on the Internet is a right to be enjoyed by citizens worldwide. "The United States needs to end [its] involvement in China's Internet regulatory system by holding ISPs and technology corporations liable" for aiding state-sponsored censorship.

Such rules would balance U.S. views on human rights without stepping on Chinese sovereignty. "The freedom of speech and expression contained in the First Amendment remains a sacred tradition in the U.S. At a minimum, the U.S. should guarantee that its government, corporations and citizens refrain from interfering with these freedoms in cyberspace."

Source: Eurekalert & others

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