Internet censorship study group reports on China

Sunday, April 17, 2005

An international study group report released Thursday calls China's internet censorship "the most sophisticated effort of its kind in the world," and details measures used within China to limit citizen access to internet resources, including the BBC. The study found though that sites of most American news outlets were available, such as CNN, MSNBC, and ABC, as were major anonymizer and human rights sites.

The OpenNet Initiative project (ONI), made up of researchers at the University of Toronto in Canada, Harvard Law School in the US, and Cambridge University in the UK, has a mission "to investigate and challenge state filtration and surveillance practices".

The report, by the project's National Filtering team, and named Internet Filtering in China in 2004-2005: A Country Study, was published on Thursday.

Says the report summary: "ONI sought to determine the degree to which China filters sites on topics that the Chinese government finds sensitive, and found that the state does so extensively."

Topics which were found to be frequently blocked included pornography, Taiwanese and Tibetan independence, Falun Gong, the Dalai Lama, the Tiananmen Square incident, opposition political parties, and a variety of anti-Communist movements.

Volunteers in China who had assisted with the study had done so at "substantial risk", according to John Palfrey, a project leader, speaking at a Congressional hearing in Washington. Palfrey said the filtering was not openly admitted by Chinese authorities, and censorship decisions could not be appealed, encouraging self-censorship.

The report describes the Chinese system as dynamic, pervasive, sophisticated, and effective. Filtering appeared to be carried out at various control points — unlike systems in other countries — and a variety of parameters were changing over time.

According to the summary, "This combination of factors leads to a great deal of supposition as to how and why China filters the Internet. These complexities also make it very difficult to render a clear and accurate picture of Internet filtering in China at any given moment."

Most filtering was at the backbone level, with additional controls implemented by individual ISPs, and Chinese search engines, which were found to block results based on particular keywords. Chinese blog providers also were found to prevent or remove content based on particular keywords, or removed the keywords from posts.

Cyber-cafes were legally required to track customer's usage, keeping records for 60 days. This and a patchwork of other laws — "including media regulation, protections of 'state secrets,' controls on Internet service providers and Internet content providers" — limited free expression. There was no single statute enacting the censorship.

During the years of the ONI study, the Chinese censorship system was observed to have grown "more refined, sophisticated, and targeted".

Other National Filtering reports so far released by the group are Bahrain 2004-05, United Arab Emirates 2004-05, and Kingdom of Saudi Arabia 2004; although members have released a number of other reports individually [1].