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A Detailed Dive Into China's Information Underground

CmdrTaco posted about 4 years ago | from the censor-this dept.

Censorship 65

eldavojohn writes "MIT's Tech Review has an article on the current state of Internet censorship in China. We've read the stories about Green Dam and the Great Firewall, but this article relates the story of one of the many ways around these tools and how they're little more than an added complexity to getting what you want from the Internet in China. The article starts out with an aliased user named Xiaomi who wakes up and utilizes Google Docs to collaborate with other Mandarin-English speakers so they can translate the day's news. Once it's there she makes it public and sends out a note on Twitter and Buzz to her followers, who copy the document to their blogs and link back to the public Google Document. The blogs survive for various lengths of time, but while they are up more people read and publish to their blogs, and the pyramid branches out." (Read more, below.)The article explains the complicated chain of tools she employs to avoid being invited down to a police station to "drink tea" (interrogation and imprisonment). Although anonymous and unrewarded, Xiaomi's work is crucial to China. An MIT expert on China claims, "The Internet has empowered the Chinese people more than the combined effects of 30 years of [economic] growth, urbanization, exports, and investments by foreign firms." By the time all is said and done, Chinese censorship is little more than mocked by thousands of people like Xiaomi. The cofounder of Global Voices explains, "We assume censored means 'Dead. Lifeless. Artificial.' What 'censored' actually means is 'really, really complicated.'" Despite our dire view of Chinese censorship, the article presents comprehensive evidence of people not only avoiding it altogether but successfully anonymously working together to avoid it, as well as protests going viral on the Internet in China. On the Internet, where there's a will there's a way.

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65 comments

Love Jesus (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31846158)

He loves you.

Re:Love Jesus (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31846282)

Yes, love Jesus like a homosexual man to man love! Jesus is so obviously gay. Long haired dude in a dress, hanging around 12 men all day long. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Au contraire! It's just that most mainstream Christian churches don't celebrate homosexuality, even though they obviously should. Gay love FTW!

Re:Love Jesus (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31850564)

Everyone else thinks you are a troll.

Brave People (3, Insightful)

MozeeToby (1163751) | about 4 years ago | (#31846170)

little more than an added complexity to getting what you want from the internet in China

Basic communication shouldn't take heroic levels of bravery. People have been imprisoned in China for doing less than what she is doing.

Re:Brave People (3, Insightful)

LS (57954) | about 4 years ago | (#31846300)

As someone who's lived in Beijing for 5 years, it's not all that heroic. There are millions of people posting things, and they just get deleted wack-a-mole style if the content is not "harmonious". The only people that get arrested are serious critics of the government who get a lot of exposure. The average middle class person in Beijing is definitely more informed about a lot of things that your average American Fox viewer. Anyway they don't care too much about the smaller upper and middle classes - the firewall and the scare tactics are mainly targeted at the masses.

Re:Brave People (4, Insightful)

MozeeToby (1163751) | about 4 years ago | (#31846426)

All that that means is that at any moment she could post the 'wrong' thing that generates lots of attention and find herself in trouble. The fact that it does happen sometimes is more than enough to make the behavior brave in my opinion, certainly braver than anything I've done with my life. And by the sound of it she is the source for a substantial amount of leaks through the firewall, just because it gets propagated through many different blogs and silently deleted doesn't mean that no one is looking for the source. Saying no one really gets harassed unless they get a large audience puts these people at the whim of their audience, what they're doing is dangerous because at any moment, without them changing anything at all, they could find themselves in very deep water.

Re:Brave People (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31853928)

You are seriously underestimating the connectedness of the average urban Chinese person. Many large companies utilize tunnels through the firewall, exposing countless Chinese to an unfiltered internet. Then there are Chinese abroad in Taiwan, Hong Kong, the US etc, with a constant influx of people and information. Foreigners have a significant presence as well. This woman is definitely not the main source for leaks through the firewall. She is one of a legion.

Re:Brave People (1, Insightful)

hypergreatthing (254983) | about 4 years ago | (#31846608)

The average middle class person in Beijing is definitely more informed about a lot of things that your average American Fox viewer.

Ahh, ok i get it. So the average Beijing person is definitely more educated than Homeless Americans too right? Or do you just like comparing apples to oranges. I'd say the average American isn't a fox news viewer or subscribes to their Jerry springer style sensationalist shows.

Re:Brave People (0, Offtopic)

ooshna (1654125) | about 4 years ago | (#31846994)

As someone who's lived in Beijing for 5 years, it's not all that heroic. There are millions of people posting things, and they just get deleted wack-a-mole style if the content is not "harmonious". The only people that get arrested are serious critics of the government who get a lot of exposure. The average middle class person in Beijing is definitely more informed about a lot of things that your average American Fox viewer. Anyway they don't care too much about the smaller upper and middle classes - the firewall and the scare tactics are mainly targeted at the masses.

You shouldn't count people who willingly get censored material from a skewed point of view.

Re:Brave People (1)

paeanblack (191171) | about 4 years ago | (#31849776)

There are millions of people posting things, and they just get deleted wack-a-mole style if the content is not "harmonious".

What I don't understand is the mindset of the army of censors the government must employ. It would be extremely difficult to find enough Americans to do that job without creating a sizable group trying to disrupt the system from the inside. Granted, we are pretty hard-core about our free speech and free press liberties compared to most nations outside of Scandinavia, but I just don't grok the reasoning behind valuing "harmony" above that.

Chinese engineering feat! (0, Offtopic)

Runaway1956 (1322357) | about 4 years ago | (#31846600)

You missed the engineering feat in the summary.

"the pyramid branches out"

Imagine. If the Egyptians had been able to do that, the pyramids might not be precisely pyramids!! Or, would they remain pyramids, with little branches supporting yet more pyramids? Hmmmm. Most interesting!

Re:Chinese engineering feat! (0, Offtopic)

MrNiceguy_KS (800771) | about 4 years ago | (#31847754)

Fractal Pyramids!

Re:Chinese engineering feat! (1)

idontgno (624372) | about 4 years ago | (#31847990)

Here [wikipedia.org] you go.

But that raises a chicken-and-egg question. Did we name the ancient Egyptian structures "pyramids" because they looked like the abstract pyramid, which already had that name? Or did the name of the abstract geometric construct come from the big rock thingies in the desert?

If the latter, the "pyramids" could be as pointy, branchy, bendy, or needle-shaped as they please, and we'd call them pyramids. And then any sort of abstract geometric construct which happened to looks like a pyramid would be called a pyramid too.

"What shape is a pyramid?"
"Pyramid-shaped."

Re:Chinese engineering feat! (1)

paeanblack (191171) | about 4 years ago | (#31849906)

"What shape is a pyramid?"
"Pyramid-shaped."

What shape is a kite?
"Kite-shaped"

What shape is an egg?
"Oval."

English has tons of tautological shapes.

Poke censorship with a stick (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31848480)

Once again: if you want to poke a stick in the eye of Chinese internet censorship, on all of the web pages that you control, add in some terms from the List of words censored by search engines in the People's Republic of China [wikipedia.org] (preferably, post the Chinese characters, not the English transliterations.)

Give the firewall some false positives.

Pointless (-1, Flamebait)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31846208)

There's nothing of value on the internet, fighting censorship is pointless.

Where there's a will (2, Insightful)

devnullkac (223246) | about 4 years ago | (#31846318)

On the internet, where there's a will there's a way.

If you accept that postulate, I've got a corollary: On the internet, whoever has the strongest will gets his way. The "evade content censorship" goal has no inherent superiority over the "censor content" goal. Whichever goal has the most (or most potent) resources applied can still win out.

Re:Where there's a will (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31846604)

Then I thank God that despite all the public apathy I've seen here in the good old U.S. and A., at least in Iran and China it looks like the people who want freedom still have the stronger will... :)

Re:Where there's a will (3, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31846716)

The general attitude in China, from what I've gathered over the past two years, is that political freedom is not a high priority to the average citizen, as long as the government continues to handle the economy well.

Re:Where there's a will (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31847452)

That seems to be the attitude here as well, but again... from this article we can safely conclude that not EVERYONE is apathetic... I think we should seek to find ways to leverage that to gain a higher percentage of non-apathetic folk.

Re:Where there's a will (2, Insightful)

zero_out (1705074) | about 4 years ago | (#31847994)

As long as people have their bread and circuses, they will be content. The Roman Empire figured that out a long time ago, and it's still true today.

Re:Where there's a will (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31850132)

Apparently not all people...

Re:Where there's a will (4, Interesting)

zero_out (1705074) | about 4 years ago | (#31846902)

Who wins really depends on what you define as the goal. If you define the goal of censors as "preventing any undesired material from getting through" then they are doomed to failure. They would need to win every single time, squashing every single instance of material that they wish to block. The evaders would only need to get one piece of material past the censors to win.

The real goal is much more complicated, and depends on critical mass of information being achieved for the evaders to win, while the censors need only prevent this critical mass from being achieved. It's much like childhood vaccinations. For the disease to win, it needs to reach critical mass in the herd, infecting a certain percentage of the population to become self-perpetuating. For the herd to win, it needs to prevent the disease from reaching critical mass. A few small pockets of individuals can be sacrificed for the greater good of the herd, but as long as those pockets are small and contained, critical mass won't be achieved, and a full-blown outbreak can be prevented.

So what do you think the Chinese government's goal is? The blocking of every instance of undesired material from getting through, and "protecting" every single citizen? Or is it prevention of critical mass, which would mean that enough people learn the truth that they decide to overthrow the government?

If you build a better lock... (5, Insightful)

garyisabusyguy (732330) | about 4 years ago | (#31846350)

then you end up wiith better lock pickers.

We might see some 'revolutionary' developments in collaboration come from this, hopefully we can all learn from it.

Re:If you build a better lock... (2, Insightful)

eldavojohn (898314) | about 4 years ago | (#31846486)

then you end up wiith better lock pickers.

We might see some 'revolutionary' developments in collaboration come from this, hopefully we can all learn from it.

The problem is that we're all using the same tools to achieve different goals. I use Google Docs to share song names and artists that I like with my friends simply because all the other site solutions (like Last.FM) are flash laden crap that I have no control over and never can find the bands I listen to like The Wapsipinicon. And I can throw a link to a blog with a publicly legally available promotional mp3. So the Chinese goal is a lot more serious and has this oppressive government forcing them to be anonymous. Me, I trust people to view and help edit my spreadsheet. My friends know who I am and we're pass the anonymous stage. Our revolutionary collaboration is going to be done with various levels of contribution, reputation, trust and background knowledge or technology wise (what if I could build mix CD song lists in tandem with friends through a site and publish it to facebook?). All the Chinese have is anonymity because of their different situation and they are dealing with words and information. The advancements they find are stunted by their situation.

So unless our government gets to be as bad as theirs (and I'm not saying that's out of the question), I don't know what tactics they are dreaming up that are going to help me right now or improve my collaboration. And they don't seem to be writing a whole lot of ground breaking software ... at least not for English speaking only users like myself. I'm not complaining, I'm just confused how I'm going to learn from this aside from maintaining an underground if I need it which -- thank god -- I don't. But perhaps the future holds a RIAA stasi that finds people like me transmitting information about non-RIAA bands and dispatches death squads to my door ...

Re:If you build a better lock... (1)

sourcerror (1718066) | about 4 years ago | (#31848066)

>We might see some 'revolutionary' developments in collaboration come from this, hopefully we can all learn from it.

The problem is that we're all using the same tools to achieve different goals. ....
So unless our government gets to be as bad as theirs (and I'm not saying that's out of the question), I don't know what tactics they are dreaming up that are going to help me right now or improve my collaboration. And they don't seem to be writing a whole lot of ground breaking software ... at least not for English speaking only users like myself

Behold: Freenet [freenetproject.org]

Re:If you build a better lock... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31848198)

then you end up wiith better lock pickers.

We might see some 'revolutionary' developments in collaboration come from this, hopefully we can all learn from it.

The better way of saying this is "If you think you finally have idiot-proven something, God creates a better idiot".

Numbers (4, Insightful)

bakuun (976228) | about 4 years ago | (#31846356)

"By the time all is said and done, Chinese censorship is little more than mocked by thousands of people like Xiaomi"

Now, let's put that number, "thousands", into perspective: China has a population of about 1.3 billion.

Re:Numbers (4, Interesting)

eldavojohn (898314) | about 4 years ago | (#31846594)

"By the time all is said and done, Chinese censorship is little more than mocked by thousands of people like Xiaomi" Now, let's put that number, "thousands", into perspective: China has a population of about 1.3 billion.

And 384 million of which are Internet users--nearly a quarter of the world total. The 'thousands' I was referring to are the people like Xiaomi who translate the content. Then thousands for each of those people post to their blogs. Then some undetermined chain goes into effect where they keep reposting and sending. It's immeasurable but this is just on the producing end of it. There's obviously a demand for this material so you can be sure that millions are reading these posts and reposts and e-mails. While we'll never be able to settle on whether it's 10 million or 100 million that have accessed a non-harmonious article in the past year, you can be sure it's in the millions for readership ... maybe even production and distribution have over a million.

If you read the article (and I thought I made it clear in the summary with the pyramid analogy), it sounds like there are a lot of eyes on this stuff. Nothing to sneeze at like you did. In the end, the article made it seem like accessing the New York Times interview with Google cofounder Sergey Brin (in wihch he speaks out against China's censorship) was not that hard of a thing to do if you wanted to do it in China.

Re:Numbers (2, Interesting)

MikeDaSpike (1196169) | about 4 years ago | (#31846828)

China
Population: 1,325,639,982
% of internet users: 22
Number of internet users: 291,640,796

United States
Population: 307,006,550
% of internet users: 72
Number of internet users: 221,044,716

In other words, despise having 4 times the population of the US, china only has less than 50% more internet users. Your perspective is skewed.

Re:Numbers (2, Interesting)

Reapman (740286) | about 4 years ago | (#31846838)

That's like saying nobody uses Microsoft Windows because only a few few hundred (thousand?) people built the software. It's typical that the content providers are a smaller group then the content consumers. People like Xiaomi are likely your "hardcore" group, the group that feels the strongest about it and which always makes up the smallest %.

Most people consume media, not distribute it.

Cause and Effect (4, Interesting)

Jeng (926980) | about 4 years ago | (#31846388)

Could the reason that China has so many cyber-criminals be a side-effect of the Great Firewall of China?

Re:Cause and Effect (2, Funny)

robot256 (1635039) | about 4 years ago | (#31846566)

Hey, it almost sounds like an premeditated consequence. Like, hey, if we oppress most of the population into submission, those smart enough to fight back will figure stuff out that we can use on other people, or we could even hire them.

Re:Cause and Effect (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31847632)

Salusa Secundus

Re:Cause and Effect (5, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31846570)

I doubt it. The great firewall isn't something most "normal" netizens notice. Almost all the Chinese I know (been living here for 2 years) *only* access sites internal to China, so the great firewall doesn't even come into play (other forms of censorship such as government regulations over blogs and site ownership, self-censorship by sites, etc are evident).

If I had to pinpoint a cause for all the crackers and pirates in China, I'd ascribe it to the general culture of lawlessness here. It's a culture that in many ways reminds me of wild west stories: for all the "big brother" scariness of the Chinese government, they honestly don't have a very strict control over the population in many ways. Examples: thousands of illegal golf courses that the government is unaware of (or which the local government is secretly sponsoring); food supply chain issues such as cancer-causing recycling of restaurant oil (called "swill oil") that the government seems unable to crack down on meaningfully, tainted milk, etc; secret gun factories that every once in a while are busted; people having a complete disregard for littering or traffic laws... This is a government that is unable or in some cases unwilling to crack down on many illegal and harmful practices.

Re:Cause and Effect (2, Interesting)

RAMMS+EIN (578166) | about 4 years ago | (#31850186)

``This is a government that is unable or in some cases unwilling to crack down on many illegal and harmful practices.''

That sounds a lot like a typical corrupt government, to me. I seem to recall corruption has been receiving quite some attention in official political statements in recent years. Any insights on how things are progressing there?

Re:Cause and Effect (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31846638)

If it was so, the criminals in question would be attacking China and not US companies and whatnot.

Re:Cause and Effect (1)

Jeng (926980) | about 4 years ago | (#31847724)

And we assume they are not doing so?

You think China would put out a press release stating that they are having internal issues with hackers?

Actually now that I think about it there was some internal hacking in China that made the news, that dulon fu or whomever they are hacked a news broadcast. Hacking the news is a pretty large chunk of iceberg poking out of the water.

Cut them off (1, Insightful)

Jaysyn (203771) | about 4 years ago | (#31846398)

The Internet has empowered the Chinese people more than the combined effects of 30 years of [economic] growth, urbanization, exports, and investments by foreign firms.

This, along with their human rights violations & lack of good global citizenship sounds like a really good reason to cut them off to me.

Re:Cut them off (4, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31846508)

It's their government that's fucked up. Not the people. The people (for the most part) are great.

If you really step back and examine it, America and most other countries are basically in the same situation at varying degrees of fucked-upedness. It's the vocal minority, or in religious circles, the vocal majority, and the governments in power that are totally fucked.

Overall, you'll find people are good. It's the politicians and those in power that are total douche-bags.

Re:Cut them off (1)

bendodge (998616) | about 4 years ago | (#31847786)

Why the random bash on religion?

Re:Cut them off (1)

Entropius (188861) | about 4 years ago | (#31847850)

Because religion is the cause of a great deal of dumbassery in the USA.

Re:Cut them off (1)

HolyCrapSCOsux (700114) | about 4 years ago | (#31848230)

It isn't the cause, it's the vehicle. Some people are assholes. They would be assholes with or without a religion. Some people are willfully ignorant. They would be so without religion. Religion is a way for assholes to gain the support of and to control the willfully ignorant.

Re:Cut them off (1)

Entropius (188861) | about 4 years ago | (#31852630)

Uncontrolled willfully ignorant are less harmful than the willfully ignorant under control of assholes.

Censorship is ... censorship. (4, Insightful)

d474 (695126) | about 4 years ago | (#31846456)

Sure, while people who have the expertise, time, and desire to circumvent "censorship" may just view censorship as a mere "complication", for the rest of the population who are work hard all day and lack both the energy and prowess and are afraid of being arrested, it's still censorship.

And it's more than just censorship, it's stuff that fills the void of truth like propaganda and disinformation. Just mix it all together and you have most of the populace which is misinformed and under, for lack of better terms, a soft form of mind control.

Re:Censorship is ... censorship. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31847348)

The propaganda in China can be summarized as:

* Don't have more than one baby.
* The Japs were bad 70 years ago (non-PC term for Japanese intended to show attitude).

ALLOW ME TO PHRASE IT: WHO GIVES A SHIT ?! (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31846506)

Maybe if you're a red commie, but who reading this is?

John Gilmore was right. (1, Insightful)

jcr (53032) | about 4 years ago | (#31846648)

"The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it." ... even in a country under the control of the Red Dynasty.

-jcr

But David was more right when he said (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31848864)

We don't need no education
We don't need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone
Hey!! Teacher!! Leave us kids alone!!
All in all it's just another brick in the wall
All in all you're just another brick in the wall

Roger. David. All the same when you're high, drivin' in your taxi, getting stoned!!

REAL censorship... (1)

Notquitecajun (1073646) | about 4 years ago | (#31846882)

This is REAL censorship.

Attention hard(er) (than me) righties and hard lefties, and whoever complains about the modding...quit complaining. Yes, there may be a few things to fight for, but we DON'T see this in America. People are NOT jailed for radically opposing views and speaking out. Simply having difficulty getting your message out, or not having people listen or care, is NOT censorship.

Re:REAL censorship... (1)

Hatta (162192) | about 4 years ago | (#31847464)

Simply having difficulty getting your message out, or not having people listen or care, is NOT censorship.

No, it's not censorship. But as a means of controlling public opinion, ignoring or marginalizing inconvenient information is just as effective if not more so. At least in China people know the state controlled media is state controlled. If there's any doubt as to the power of American propaganda look at the history of Cannabis prohibition. We're coming up 70 years of prohibiting this dangerous drug which is factually safer than aspirin. Only now is there a glimmer of hope with some ballot initiatives in a few states, but there's a long way to go. If there were really a free exchange of ideas in the US it would have never been prohibited in the first place.

Is the PRC Creating Stronger Opposition? (4, Insightful)

Neuroticwhine (1024687) | about 4 years ago | (#31846886)

You have to wonder how this is changing the psychology of the standard citizen. The more people need to rely on each other to circumvent the government restrictions, the less strength the government itself has as a controlling body; ironically enough, i wonder if the additional reliance on your neighbor would create a tighter knit, more ready to challenge the government community.

Re:Is the PRC Creating Stronger Opposition? (1)

RAMMS+EIN (578166) | about 4 years ago | (#31850270)

``i wonder if the additional reliance on your neighbor would create a tighter knit, more ready to challenge the government community.''

I think this is the case, and it makes you wonder why governments engage in censorship. On the other hand, I don't think the Chinese government has a lot to fear at this point - there are lots and lots of chinese people who agree with any given policy of the government, and as long as economic growth stays high, I don't think the populace will massively decide to go slaughter the hen who lays the golden eggs.

ITYM (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31847066)

There were is mill, there is a road.

Another Way To Look At This? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31848836)

There might be another way to look at this. I'm not saying that the censorship isn't serious, but is it possible that another goal might be to drive people to this level of computer knowledge? I know it sounds conspiracy minded but adversity does spur growth. China seems to have been encouraging a growth in computer & programming skills. Holding something that people want away from them unless they have the skill to reach it would encourage them to develop those skills. Maybe a side motive?

Why are we in bed with these monsters? (1)

jeko (179919) | about 4 years ago | (#31849272)

These are the cheerful murderers we want to give control of routing and DNS to?!

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