Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Google & the Great Firewall of China

Information technology impact in this era is epitomized by the Google – China controversy; hardly viewed as a private dispute between a corporation and a domestic regulatory body, not only is it attracting considerable eye-balls in the digital space but has resulted in even President Obama getting involved in the talks with the Chinese Govt.

On a cold winter day in December, numerous illegal attempts to access the Gmail accounts of various Chinese Human Rights activists critical of the Chinese Govt, were discovered. Google, having identified these “highly sophisticated and targeted attacks,” as originating from China reacted by halting the censorship of its Chinese version search engine (www.google.cn) and is considering shutting down operations in China. The Chinese Govt. has denied Govt involvement in the attacks arguing that: a. no evidence has been uncovered demonstrating Govt. links to the attacks; and b. its online restrictions are lawful and any attempts by the US to insist upon amendments to Chinese internet regulation will amount to “information imperialism.”

Moving from this international diplomatic brouhaha and posturing – what is the controversy really about? How is an internet user’s ability to read (access information) and write or otherwise participate in online conversations affected? In other words what would we not be able to do if we were in China instead of in a Wi-Fi Univ classroom in Bangalore or café in Pune?

Before www.google.cn decided to stop censoring their results, a query on any subject from the list (as expanded and monitored constantly) chosen by the Chinese Government would yield the following reply in Mandarin “in accordance with local laws, regulations and policies, part of the search result is not shown.” In other words, China permits internet use for commerce but considers internet control as a critical matter of state security and heavily censors content it deems pornographic, anti-social or politically subversive. For ensuring these goals, it goes so far as to block Twitter, Facebook and several social networking sites, popular video-sharing sites like YouTube and international news agencies.

A Chinese person or someone geographically located in China would not only (a) be able to read any information or post any comment on anything deemed as critical or remotely sensitive by the Chinese Govt; but (b) also not be able to post or access anything on Facebook/Twitter/YouTube/Flickr; to achieve this goal of limiting criticism, wholesale access to these and other such sites that facilitate online conversations has been prevented.

In practice, any information that puts the government in bad light is censored. The Chinese Govt. implements its internet censorship policy through most sophisticated technologies, including various regulations, punishment and surveillance techniques. In fact, utilizing these technologies, numerous journalists and ‘cyber-dissidents’ have been identified and arrested.

The question, is China entitled to deploy such wholesale prohibitions (disproportionate to goals), requires the examination of internet regulation and exposes the ravines in legal cultures and consequently, life as we know in India (& other democracies) and China. China limits and rigidly controls Internet content through wide prohibitions under its internet regulatory law. “IISP (Internet Information Service Provider) shall not produce, reproduce, release or disseminate information that undermines social stability, the State’s policy towards religion and other information prohibited by the law or administrative regulations.” (Art. 15, State Council Order No. 292, Sep. 2000)

Neither the principle of censorship nor limiting grounds such as interest of national security is novel; in fact most countries, including India and US recognise such limiting grounds. Even India etc have censorship laws that prohibit child pornography etc. The stark difference however is that free speech is considered the general norm (& some exceptions, narrow limitations recognized.)

Or perhaps, this has been our wrong approach in this entire issue – attempting to tell China that we know ‘the right way.’ In fact, all signs indicate China hardening on its stance rather than moving to a more connected world; and potentially a lost opportunity. It is not being suggested that we turn a blind-eye to illegal hacking or to human rights activists being bullied; but utilize the advantage proffered by net neutrality to ease into a more connected future. Net Neutrality would offer China, for the first time, an unlimited opportunity to showcase Brand Governance China; People in China would be able to access websites/social networks (hitherto blocked) and others elsewhere would get an opportunity to hear authentic Chinese voices, over and above those few faces seen on limited broadcast/news media corp. tubes. I believe that the China should not focus as much on censorship (of the Internet or curbing access to websites) but rather have the opportunity to credibly refute ‘illicit’ or ‘potentially dangerous’ rumors.

The Golden Shield Project or the Great Firewall of China must be persuaded down. The internet provides for free flow and access of any kind of information from any part of the world. Don’t the Chinese deserve to participate in this story – to narrate their history, past & present as they see it and write the global narrative too? Don’t they have the right to question their government and us? Just because China has a Communist government, does that mean that they have the right to censor anything they please?

Such blanket censorship regulations violate freedom of speech and press (not by extension of Indian or American laws) but promised to citizens of the People’s Republic of China by Art.35 of its Constitution.

- The author is an aspiring IP lawyer and net aficionado currently completing the rites of passage, at Christ College of Law, Bangalore.


  1. At a time when a lot is being talked about the booming economy of China and how it's gradually becoming more expansive, the persistent censorship policy raises valid questions. And you have done it quite impressively. Besides, it reflects deep research about a very current, interesting topic. You may know that GNI is trying hard to push the Chinese government to reconsider its policies. So it's appreciable that you make a point too. Kudos!

  2. I also wonder what impact will it have on Brand India? Will India be able to take advantage to get Google to use India as its Asia hub?

    A quick mention was made here:




yasmin lawsuit