The Great Firewall

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China's internet is only connected to the worldwide web through a few servers, which are closely monitored by the state. And Chinese platforms scrutinize uploaded content in real time. The Russian Duma has given its final approval to a bill creating a domestic internet. Lawmakers say it aims to protect Russia from cyber threats — but the law has sparked protest: Critics worry it will allow censorship.

China does everything it can to block access to information, particularly from the foreign press. Russia's Duma has given its initial approval for a draft law that would create a domestic internet.

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The stated intent is to protect Russia from external threats. But critics worry that it would facilitate censorship. The Great Firewall blocks access to eight of the top 25 most popular websites globally, including Google, Facebook, and Twitter. Many other social networking applications are blocked, such as Snapchat and Instagram. Some websites are not completely blocked, such as Wikipedia, but some specific pages cannot be accessed. Other websites and internet services oscillate between being blocked and unblocked, including the coding website GitHub.

In addition to these high-profile websites, the Great Firewall blocks thousands of websites deemed to host violent and pornographic content, or other illegal content. There are no formal criteria to determine when a website will be banned, nor is there a formal appeal process for companies or individuals to protest a ban. However, there are some informal standards.

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VPNs are the most common tool used by both businesses and individuals to bypass the Great Firewall. Using a VPN in China is not illegal, but illegal activities carried out through using one obviously are. Accessing banned websites is generally considered mischievous, but not illegal. Operating a VPN service in China is not illegal either, as long as they are registered with authorities. Foreigners must enter into a joint venture with a Chinese partner to establish a VPN service.

Tweeting through the Great Firewall

However, given that VPN services in China will be affiliated with state-owned telecom companies like China Unicom and China Telecom, who may be requested to share information with the government, those looking to skirt the Great Firewall will use a foreign VPN service. Using a foreign VPN service is not illegal. However, foreign VPNs might have their websites blocked by the Great Firewall to begin with, and Chinese authorities may suppress the effectiveness of their services.

For overseas companies whose core business is not directly affected by the Great Firewall, the effects on productivity and day-to-day operations should be considered. Many companies either set up their own corporate VPNs for internal use or subscribe to a corporate VPN package for their China offices, regardless of their industry.

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Accessing foreign websites is already slower than accessing Chinese ones, and using a VPN to bypass the Great Firewall usually slows the connection even more. Sometimes VPN services or individual connections can stop functioning properly for hours or even days at a time, leading to unexpected drops in productivity. We have noticed that these kinds of VPN connections have stopped working regularly since earlier this year, while it appears IPSec VPN tunnels have not been impacted so far. Lei not his real name then opened an e-mail from Falun Gong supporters in the United States.

The message contained a long list of proxy servers that allowed him to bypass China's firewall, the regime's first line of defense against unwanted Internet content.

In this context, a "proxy server" is an anonymous relay computer outside the Chinese firewall. Chinese users log on to the proxy server, which in turn logs on to the blocked site, thus fooling the government's site-blocking software. Soon, Lei was browsing through documents about Tiananmen on blocked Chinese dissident sites, and catching up on Falun Gong news at the supposedly blocked New York Times site. If he wanted to, Lei explained, he could even ogle pornography online. The entire process took about 30 minutes.

But the information is there, [so] why can't we see it? We treat this like a game.

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Lei and his friends are probably a minority among Chinese Internet users. She sometimes meets people through the Internet, she said, but is dismayed that chat rooms, which draw millions of Chinese, are so often used for sex talk and liaisons. The new regulations also turn Internet service and content providers into de facto government spies. Article 14 requires all ISPs to record "the time of Both ISPs and content providers must keep their records for 60 days and turn them over to "the relevant state authorities" on demand.

Many Internet players shrug off the new restrictions. Not too many years ago, you needed a license to own a fax machine or a modem in China. I bet those laws are still on the books. One foreign executive with a Chinese portal site explained that all Chinese media face content restrictions, and that few investors expected the Internet to be an exception to the rules.

China with the Internet is certainly a freer place than China without the Internet. For the first time, "unofficial" news is circulating all over the country. As a result, millions of people have gained access to information and ideas that would have been unimaginable a generation ago. But the Communist Party is still firmly in control of China's political superstructure. The new Internet regulations serve as a reminder that the commissars are both ready and willing to slam the door on independent speech.

In Communist China, it has always been illegal to create an independent news organization of any kind.

Test if a site is blocked in China

Yet several popular sites have developed informal networks of reporters and commentators that generate independent news coverage and fresh ideas about current events. In an effort to fight this trend, the new Internet regulations require all Chinese portal sites to carry state news feeds and to seek special permission before posting news from foreign media.

Under the new rules, only state media are allowed to set up news sites, and only with permission from the State Council Information Office, a Cabinet-level agency tied to the Communist Party's Propaganda Ministry. The Information Office handles content issues, while the Ministry of Information Industry looks after service and access issues.

What is the Great Firewall?

To avoid trouble, Chinese Web sites sometimes shut down their chat rooms in advance of sensitive dates like the Tiananmen anniversary — with millions of dollars at stake, the major players in China's burgeoning online economy try not to offend the government. But even before the new regulations were posted, he said, in-house editors known as "Big Mamas" in Chinese had been removing controversial posts as soon as they were spotted.

His competitors were no different. Elsewhere, authorities have closed smaller sites for posting unapproved material, a practice that seems likely to spread now that formal restrictions are in place. While the government's new Internet policy seems draconian from the perspective of an open society, it is important to remember that Chinese regulators once considered building a China-only intranet, separated from the Internet by a Great Firewall, as it were, through which only a limited amount of carefully-vetted content would pass. As late as , Ministry of Telecommunications officials told the U.

The idea did not prosper, partly because competing government departments began developing Internet capability on their own. Despite the official policy of openness suggested by China's pending entry into the World Trade Organization, some officials still cling to the dream of a China-only information network sealed off from the dangerous temptations of the wider Web. Jiang Mianheng, a tech-savvy vice president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, at a conference in Shanghai last June.

According to local media, Dr. Jiang added that the mainland must break the Western world's "monopoly on information resources and related industries. This resistance to an open information regime is not simply bureaucratic intransigence, however. The chaotic history of modern China, from the collapse of the last imperial dynasty through the madness of the Cultural Revolution, has left many Chinese craving stability rather than freedom.

Maybe we do not want that kind of freedom.