Blocked sites will return, but with limited access
This column was published in the January 26, 2003 op-ed page of the South China Morning Post. See the column as printed (PDF).
Beginning January 10, Internet users in China began reporting that they could no longer access the popular web site Blogspot.com. Blogspot's personal web sites, or "blogs," are as notable for what they are as for what they aren't: Blogspot features an eclectic mix of user' journals, interspersed with off-beat links from around the web. Only a handful of Blogspot's million-odd sites offer content likely to raise a censor's ire, so when China blocked Blogspot - in its entirety and without warning or explanation - Internet users were bewildered.
For my part, I wasn't surprised to learn of Blogspot's problem. With Professor Jonathan Zittrain at the Harvard Law School, I have spent much of the last year tracking tens of thousands of sites blocked by China. Our work has shown that Chinese filtering bars access to a wide spectrum of sites - blocking controversial sites that openly criticize government policies, but also blocking sites that to us seem unobjectionable. We have found blocking of research universities, health guides, and even tourist brochures. While some blocks come and go, others remain in effect for months or longer. Often, those who run affected sites are unaware they are being blocked, as network operators in China are not obliged to tell them, and Chinese users lack an effective means of reporting the problem. Given this reality, I feared Blogspot would be blocked silently and permanently, like many thousands of sites before it.
Blocked in China, Blogspot's staff took action. Blogspot encouraged its many users to describe the situation on their blogs, and an online uproar resulted. International media covered the story, running headlines like "China Blocks Bloggers Worldwide" here and elsewhere. Online discussion rivaled the furor of the ten days in September 2002 when China blocked Google. Since access to Google had eventually been restored, onlookers speculated that China might relent and restore Blogspot. As it turned out, Blogspot acted first, moving its servers to a new Internet address - and, as of press time, China hasn't taken steps to block the new address.
So, after roughly a week of blockage, Blogspot content again became accessible - most of it, at least. But some user sites remain unreachable in China. Among Blogspot sites still blocked is one called Dynaweb, operated by an American company called Dynamic Internet Technology that helps Chinese users bypass filtering. Dynaweb's Blogspot site provides the addresses of computers worldwide which can help circumvent China's filtering efforts. To bar users' access to this information, China continues to silently block the Dynaweb site, thereby making retrieval of the necessary instructions impossible. And among Blogspot's million other user sites, many others may be blocked too - perhaps including Blogspot's most controversial political sites. When and if site operators learn they are blocked, will anyone hear their calls for assistance? Or will the world continue business as usual, content that the bulk of Blogspot is again accessible?
The blocking of Dynaweb, but not the rest of Blogspot, reflects China's relatively recent implementation of filtering systems that more specifically target the content to be blocked. Years ago, China's filtering could operate only at the level of a server's IP address. Under that system, whenever Chinese censors objected to content on a given web page, they had to block all the content on that page's server, even if the server hosted thousands or millions of other pages. But China's filtering toolkit now includes new abilities: China can block pages that contain controversial keywords, or searches that use those keywords.
These new filtering abilities alter the balance between Chinese censors and users. China's traditional filtering methods were bound to provoke outrage since they led to over-blocking of popular web sites. But China's more focused blocking may not elicit indignation or even notice. "China blocks 100 dissident web sites" is a far less incendiary headline than "China blocks one million blogs."
My concern here is more than speculative, for China's recent treatment of Google perfectly demonstrates the danger of focused blocking. When China restored access to Google after ten days of complete blocking in September, the new Google differed from the old. As accessed from China, the new Google lacks the ability to search controversial terms like the names of Chinese political leaders. Searches using such terms yield no results - and sometimes also cause a "timeout" of up to thirty minutes when the user's Internet connection ceases to function. Notwithstanding this problem (and others), international headlines trumpeted "Google restored to China," and there is no sign that Google, or anyone else, cares to pursue the issue any further. It seems that Google, a business that seeks access to the Chinese market, considers "mostly not blocked" to be good enough. But for Chinese users seeking impartial information about their political leaders, the new Google borders on useless.
As the battle continues between user and censor, I believe the censor has the better of it. In the short run, China's filtering remains error-prone and imprecise, so analysts have plenty to criticize. But in the long run, those who seek to censor online content hold the most important cards: Not only can they secretly monitor users' behavior, they can search for circumvention systems and implement filtering that daily becomes more sophisticated, threatening, and punitive. The return of Blogspot may therefore be a victory only in the most immediate sense.
Benjamin Edelman is a student at the Harvard Law School and a fellow at its Berkman Center for Internet & Society.