‘Just Google it’ is a phrase you won’t hear said in China. The same way, you won’t be able to use Google Maps to guide you through the busy streets of Beijing, nor check your Gmail account to see if there are any new emails in your inbox. All of this is a result of excessive Internet censorship, that has come to the very extreme due to harsh governmental regulations.
There are thousands of URLs blocked in mainland China, and certain Google online services top the list that includes a large number of popular global sites. Website blocking is one of the practices the Chinese government employs to regulate the Internet domestically. The whole set of laws and actions form The Great Firewall of China – one of the most excessive mechanisms ever created for censoring the World Wide Web.
The Great Firewall (GFW) is a part of the Golden Shield Project, which covers various areas of China’s national network security. The purpose of the GFW is to control the Internet within China, leaving access only to content that complies with strict governmental policies. The way it is achieved is through blocking specific websites, keyword filtering and monitoring the activity of Internet users.
It is all made possible by a sophisticated surveillance system. The arsenal of technical methods used to control the Internet content includes IP blocking, URL filtering, Man-in-the-Middle attacks (MITM), DNS and packet filtering, and others.
Tens of thousands of people constitute the Internet police that constantly monitors what is being said and published online to neutralize opinions and delete entries unfavorable to the authorities. Those who dare to critique the regime, communicate with groups abroad, sign petitions or in other ways express opinions about topics deemed sensitive face prosecutions and even imprisonment.
The Freedom House, which presents annual Freedom on the Net reports and country rankings, described China as ‘the worst abuser of the Internet Freedom’ in 2016.
A popular method to get through The Great Firewall is to use a virtual private network (VPN). It reroutes Internet traffic through a remote server and changes the IP address. This way, user virtually appears to be in a different location and can bypass country-specific restrictions and censorship when going online. It is important to choose a reliable VPN service provider that has technical capabilities to operate in markets as tough as China, just like NordVPN has.
China’s Great Firewall blocks access to an ever growing number of sites that range from social networking sites and news portals to search engines and online work tools. Occasionally, some of the banned websites might become available again, for example, LinkedIn.
Unfortunately, some of the top social media sites counting billions of users worldwide are out of reach for people in China. No status sharing on Facebook, no gorgeous Instagram pics, no funny snaps for Snapchat and no groundbreaking tweets for Twitter. Blogger, Blogspot, Tumblr, Flickr and Soundcloud also fall into the blacklist.
Pinterest, the social media platform that works as a “catalog of ideas”, is one of the newest additions to the blacklist of sites being blocked by the Great Firewall. Based on the fundamental idea of discovering and sharing visual ideas, Pinterest is hardly known as a medium for spreading politically sensitive content. As observed by the CNN, the decision to put a ban on the site corresponds with the pattern of shutting down global services that rival rising domestic competitors.
Freedom of press suffers, as many news and media sites are prohibited, this way limiting access to global news for Chinese people. The list includes The Financial Times, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Google News and even the French L’Equipe. The New York Times was shut down after an article about the wealth of the country’s prime minister’s family.
When it comes to video entertainment, Netflix, Youtube, and Vimeo also can’t get through the Great Firewall.
What about Wikipedia? The online encyclopedia became inaccessible in 2015 when it turned to the HTTPS security protocol. Encryption made it too difficult to be censored, so Wikipedia was banned entirely.
In addition to blocking access to entire websites, search engines such as Google Search, Bing, Yahoo and the local Baidu also fall under the effect of the Internet regulations. Search results on censored keywords are filtered, eliminating the blacklisted websites from the results page and showing only a few or no results. Categories of the censored keywords vary from general terms deemed politically sensitive (like democracy, human rights, dictatorship) to political events and figures (Tibetan independence, Dalai), pornography (Playboy) and other.
Now Google Search is blocked in China, but it wasn’t so until 2010. Before then, Google had chosen to serve China’s market and provide its people with information access, even though it contained limitations required to comply with the local censorship policy. However, the tech giant changed its mind after facing a cyber attack that was found to be originated from China. Google reacted by directing its Chinese traffic to the search engine version for Hong Kong, where censorship does not apply. As it might have been expected, soon Google services became inaccessible for users in China.
A recent proof of the extensive surveillance regime and its intrusiveness is the reported censorship within messaging apps WhatsApp, Weibo and WeChat, linked with the death of Liu Xiaobo, the human rights activist and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Users who were sending messages commemorating Liu have noticed their messages being deleted from the apps. It signals the seriousness of the effort that was thrown to eliminate all the content about the activist.
Hard to believe yet true: Winnie-the-Pooh has been blocked from social networks in China. But what has this lovable bear done wrong to be censored? It appears it’s all about memes comparing Winnie the Pooh to Xi Jinping, the president of China. The memes haven’t passed through censors’ eyes without notice: stickers with Winnie-the-Pooh have disappeared from the sticker gallery of WeChat, and so did comments referencing Pooh’s Chinese name in Weibo. With that being said, who could have ever imagined that Winnie the Pooh will prompt the message ‘this content is illegal’?
It seems that the Great Firewall is getting even higher. At the beginning of July 2017, GreenVPN, one of the most popular virtual networks (VPN) used in China, was shut down due to a governmental request. VPN is a common way for people to get access to unrestricted, uncensored and unfiltered Internet on a daily basis. However, possibilities for citizens to experience the open web are about to become even more limited, as the authorities of China have ordered state-run telecommunication companies to start banning individuals from using virtual private networks by February 1, 2018.
Negative effects for the academic society and the country’s development have started to be noticed. The strict Internet control causes a struggle for Chinese scientists. Access to foreign academic websites from China is extremely slow, if not fully restricted. As a result, the difficulties that researchers experience to get the latest information and resources hamper the scientific progress.
On a final note, the freedom of speech and the free flow of information being trampled by the Great Firewall remain a major concern from the human rights perspective. With the constantly growing list of restricted websites and tightened censorship practices, the possibility of the situation getting any better remains low.