Chinese web control an Olympic challenge for tech firms

That China was given the Olympic Games was offensive to some, given its human rights record. Some countered that the sporting event was the perfect opportunity to pressure the country into reducing the restrictions it places on its own people.

Indeed, among other promises the Chinese Olympic body (BOCOG) made ahead of the games was one to give journalists reporting on the Beijing games unfettered access to the web.

That hasn't happened. Last week, Reuters journalists reported that they didn't have access to the BBC China site or to Amnesty International, the human rights campaign group which had just published a report criticising human rights in the country.

Some confusion followed, as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) couldn't make up its mind whether it had or had not cut a deal with the Chinese, allowing some sites to be blocked. By the end of the week, the IOC claimed there was no deal and no censorship except to sites the government saw as subversive.

Many of the disputed sites, including Amnesty International's, have since been unblocked but only for international journalists. "Ordinary Chinese citizens won't be able to access Amnesty's site," Amnesty spokesman Steve Ballinger told IT PRO. "Just because it's unblocked for journalists doesn't mean the average man in an internet caf can access it."

What they do and how they do it

And indeed, what that average man can access is very much up to the state. According to OpenNet, web-access in China is controlled by their Ministry of Information Industry. The Ministry of Public Security also runs the Golden Shield Project, which is essentially a digital surveillance network.

Internet infrastructure in China is run by a selection of state-regulated internet access providers, which peer at three exchange points run by the government, and in turn grant access to internet service providers (ISPs).

The ISPs are required to track all users, as well as hold that tracking data for at least two months. Individuals signing up for internet services are reportedly required to register at the local police station. Using an internet caf is no better; such outlets are forced to use filtering software, and record all users' names and online destinations for 60 days.

According to a report from the American internet research group Pew: "In China, censorship, monitoring, rules and enforcement make for a much more controlled internet. Within China, maintaining this situation already requires tens of thousands of internet police and many layers of accountability and potential punishement." The report cited as example that the death penalty is in principle an eligible punishment for ISPs convicted of hosting a pornographic site.

Websites run inside a country can simply be shut down. According to OpenNet, repressive countries will also use IP blocking, DNS tampering, URL blocking and denial of service attacks to block sites which aren't in their physical reach. "Obviously there is overt censorship blocking certain sites," Ballinger said.

But some search companies have filtered their results on behalf of the Chinese government. "There's also filtering of web searches, done with the complicity of search engines, including Google but also Yahoo and Microsoft."

Key filtered terms include "democracy", "Falun Gong" and anything to do with Tiananmen Square, but there is often little clear reason for some filtered terms. Often, English versions of sites are available, while the Chinese language edition is not; the BBC news site is one example of this. Ballinger said that tech isn't always needed, as high profile jail sentences lead to self-censorship.

And sometimes, IT firms get caught up in the middle. Last year, IT firms noticed emails weren't getting through to Chinese recipients. After looking into it, most concluded it was the stat "readjusting" their internet controls which had interrupted traffic.

Tech firms

With the largest number of broadband users in the world and a population that offers the potential for a lot of growth China's internet control techniques affect the rest of the world. The globalisation of business means companies feel the need to operate in all big markets, regardless of what they have to give up to do so.

This has business implications, even for the largest tech companies. Microsoft, Google and Yahoo have all allowed their search engines to be filtered by the Chinese government, and Yahoo courted even more controversy by giving up details of one of their users, who was jailed for ten years off the contents of an email sent using a Yahoo account.

"It's the rush to get into the Chinese market, which is clearly a very lucrative market," Amnesty's Ballinger said. "These companies wanted a slice of the market, but sacrificed the principles they talked about when they were starting out freedom of information and expression."

But such firms argue "if we don't do it, we can't operate in China," said Ballinger. "We would like to see them challenge the Chinese, the same way you would in the UK with lawyers if the government tried to force something Exhaust all judicial appeals before complying with state directives."