China has over 100 million internet users, a number second only to the United States. But while 60 per cent of Americans have Internet access, only 6 per cent of Chinese do. In other words, Chinese Internet usage has a helluva lotta room to grow.
This is one reason why we should be concerned about recent reports of censorship and blocked Web sites in the world's most populous country. Its national censorship system is commonly referred to as "the great firewall of China."
In past weeks, China has cracked down on Internet cafés, closing 1,600 (of a reported 1.8 million) of them, and doling out heavy fines. The sheer numbers are startling; when you think that Canada boasts 2,300 Tim Hortons, it's clear that 1,600 cafés closed is a lot of Internet access curbed.
China claims the closures and fines are an effort to reduce children's exposure to sex and violence in Web sites and video games. But a heap of blocked addresses and a general effort to stifle Web content the government deems harmful to public morality should cause concern. Who gets to define what's harmful?
Google's recent launch of a Chinese news portal has involved an alarming increase in cooperation with the Chinese government. Though the company's oft-repeated unofficial motto is "Do no evil," its China search engines have been programmed to ignore sites banned by the state.
The world's most popular search engine claimed this was done because its policy is not to include sites whose content is inaccessible, but this argument is specious on many counts.
People rely on "Google cache" (a sort of photocopy of every page the service searches) to read content that has since been taken down, or to view content from sites to which access is restricted. It's like an online banned books list. You can't read them in their entirety, but you know they exist.
By excising the banned sites from the search, Google is effectively limiting Chinese Internet users' ability to discern what's out there, thus facilitating the censorship process. What's more, the news sites banned by Chinese Internet users are accessible to users outside of China. When contacted by NOW, Google officials refused to comment on their role in China's crackdown.
There have also been numerous cases of imprisonment of Chinese Internet writers and Web publishers, and, according to a January 28 study by Amnesty International, instances of detention and imprisonment for disseminating or downloading information online have risen by 60 per cent in the past two years.
On PEN Canada's Web site, one learns of jailed Chinese Internet scribes like Liu Weifang who have been kept in jail for years for writing opinionated pieces, or, in the words of the court that arbitrated against him, "for inciting subversion against state power."
"They've got something like 30,000 Internet police," says PEN Canada program director David Cozac. "And apparently they have surveillance equipment that can be used in Internet cafes, so it's quite Orwellian."
Given how much information is out there on the Internet, you'd think it would be almost impossible to censor it thoroughly, but thanks to technology provided by a host of U.S. and Canadian companies (Nortel Networks among them), China has crafted very sophisticated filtering technology. On its Web site, Nortel Networks says it has helped upgrade China Telecom's broadband IP networks.
But, rumours aside, it's difficult to hold a company like Nortel accountable for Chinese application of its technology.
"We've been in China for over 20 years," says Nortel's Tina Warren. "We wouldn't be involved in that kind of censorship or control. Our goal is all about enabling."
Google claims that, though it excludes a handful of news outlets, it still searches approximately 1,000 sites, far more than its German and Italian news portals, which cull from approximately 700 and 250 sites respectively.
And despite censorship by Google, words blocked from Microsoft's new MSN blogging service and the Chinese government's decision to restrict Chinese bloggers from using blogspot, Chinese bloggers are getting their thoughts out.
In a November article in the New Scientist, Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at the University of California at Berkeley, estimated the number of bloggers in China at 500,000. He writes that when the Chinese government cracked down on Blogspot.com, it didn't expect the bloggers to circumvent the mandate.
But internal hosting sites have sprung up all over the place, allowing the weblogs to continue to publish. Indeed, while Chinese Internet users may not yet be able to use the word "truth" in a bulletin board post or visit the BBC's Web site, change is coming, whether the Chinese government and its complicit corporate partners like it or not.