By D.K. MATAI
Powerful social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube remain blocked in China. China will have to concede defeat much sooner than it realizes in its war against the free access to global information.
The more zealous Beijing becomes about censoring the internet, the more it risks turning the public against its policies. Millions of people within China, including expatriates, human rights activists, and dissidents are already using tunneling software applications to engineer their daily “Great Escape” from China’s stringent security systems.
This casts doubt on whether China can really maintain control of which sites its 380 million internet users visit each day. Far from being just a cyber squabble, Chinese leaders will learn that they may no longer be able to repel an overwhelming tide of free – and unfiltered – global information.
A growing number of companies are taking advantage of the exploding market to circumvent internet censorship by providing tunneling networks, such as virtual private networks (VPNs), proxy servers, and onion routing.
These methods give web surfers a secure way to log-on and safely access the internet in such public places as hotels, bars, and coffee shops by letting users “tunnel” through to a server in a country that does not share China’s internet restrictions. Then the tunneling network encrypts information under an anonymous computer address to prevent monitoring by policing authorities. The use of such networks is greatest amongst expatriates.
Non-Chinese citizens living in China are accustomed to unrestricted and unencumbered access to their favorite websites and, as a result, are not prepared to tolerate a watered-down internet. The expatriates use the VPNs as their lifeline connection to family and friends back home.
They, alongside millions of angry Chinese citizens, are doing anything it takes to make sure that they use emerging technology to tunnel through The Great Firewall of China or to “Fanqiang”, i.e., scale the wall.
Law of Diminishing Returns
The best censorship is the kind citizens do not know about. Some 60 countries currently censor the internet – up from 37 in 2008. Iran began blocking the popular social networking site Twitter last year in the aftermath of its controversial presidential election because the prolific use of social media by ordinary citizens helped them carry out their in situ live broadcasts of atrocities.
All the recent troubles in China have made the government’s cencorship more public. Public knowledge undermines the goal of censorship becuase it encourages more and more people to seek ways to circumvent it. A very public conflict with Google is one of the last things China’s central government could wish for.
If China hopes to be viewed as a world-class international player, it is going to have to think about waving the white flag in its war against the free access to global information and the internet. Otherwise, Beijing will simply prove that it doesn’t understand what its people values: the free flow of information.
Internet Freedom for Humanity
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has recently underscored the importance of the freedom of the internet. Worldwide information is now reaching many more global citizens at a faster rate than ever before. Innovations like broadband networks, wireless access, and smart-phones are intensifying these accelerating trends. As emerging markets gain muscle, and as wages grow, the world shrinks for most of humanity.
A growing population in China and other countries with censorship policies – including the Islamic world – are likely to demand full internet access. The Great Escape has begun and sovereign nation-states will not be able to stop it.
While nations can control what they give to their citizens, they cannot control what their citizens seek!
***Posted March 1st, 2010