Internet Censorship: The Great Firewall of China and the Great Australian Clean Feed

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The Great Firewall of China

As I have earlier alluded to in this post, the internet practically enshrines freedom of speech for people of many nations. For some other nations, such as China, content is blocked, though there are a myriad of ways to transgress these blocks. So while many Chinese people can realistically freely access any opinions they want, content is still technically restricted.

Additionally, one may not go to jail for accessing certain material, but one can certainly go to jail in different parts of the world for producing certain material. The Washington Post feature an article on a university student who went to jail for writing and publishing politically controversial material:

Soliman, 22, was expelled from Al-Azhar University last spring for sharply criticizing the university’s rigid curriculum and faulting religious extremism on his blog. He was ordered to appear before a public prosecutor on Nov. 7 on charges of “spreading information disruptive of public order,” “incitement to hate Muslims” and “insulting the President.” Soliman was detained pending an investigation, and the detention has been renewed four times. He has not had consistent access to lawyers or to his family.

Reports of this nature are not uncommon in certain parts of the world. One blogger writes of how he ended up in a Chinese prison:

So let’s recap for a moment, to understand what I had done that would later lead to my arrest. I was milling around in a public place, and when an illegal demonstration occurred, I, like many other civilians as well as credentialed press, began capturing video of the event to show “friends and family” later. Although I was later told that this type of activity is illegal to film, there were no Chinese citizens or anyone else, media or otherwise, arrested at the event aside from one solitary journalist of ITV, who was inside the park at the time of the banner hang.

It becomes easy to see then how easy it might be to get jailed for blogging in China. This post talks about one such incident:

He was one of as many as seven bloggers who were detained after writing about a 25-year-old woman, Yan Xiaoling, who had allegedly been gang-raped and murdered by someone connected to local authorities in Fujian. Guo’s crime: reposting something that had already been put on a BBS in Fujian Province, titled “Yan Xiaoling (嚴曉玲) much more miserable than Deng Yujiao (鄧玉嬌).” Deng Yujiao is a waitress turned national heroine who became famous for stabbing an official who may have sexually assaulted her. He then posted a video he had found, completely unedited, in which Yan Xiaoling’s mother accused local authorities of trying to cover up the case.
Five police came to arrest him the day after, on July 15.

But there is another side to this story. For instance, we know about the incidents where people are jailed for posting critical material on the internet, usually because of the internet. Indeed, in this last case, Twitter was what got the man out of jail. He writes on his blog that he told the police that his iPhone was actually just an ordinary MP3 player, and so, was allowed to take it into prison, then:

I successfully made the whole world know where I was hours later. It was about 5:00am of July 16 and they had interrogated for several hours, so the police were quite tired. The police sitting opposite me felt asleep and the other one sitting behind me played games on computer so engrossed that he was unable to pay attention on me. I quickly and quietly took my phone and sent messages announcing that I had been arrested by Mawei police to Twitter in English via a twitter’s mobile web interface ( The messages were quickly translated back to Chinese by a Chinese user dupola and crazily retweeted by other users, and this drive also attracted international attention. With a certain popularity in Chinese blogger sphere and Twitter, the news that I was detained was quickly spread to everywhere on the Internet. Interestingly, I also had enough time to read paragraphs of an e-book with my phone until a police realized that the phone was in my hands. He grabbed the phone from my hands, but it was useless, too late.

This man was obviously quite lucky, but without the internet we wouldn’t know that this happens regularly. And now, various Human Rights groups do put pressure on governments to allow for internet freedom of speech. And thus, the internet, making us more aware of what’s happening in the world, also allows for the spread of neoliberal values.

The Clean Feed
Some governments are scrutinising the internet and suggest that censoring certain content is a good idea, to act within the public safety. Australia currently provides an excellent example of this, as the Labor government suggested that filtering internet content would be a good thing. The idea is that websites which cannot be classified under Australian regulations (so, anything with content more ‘offensve’ than an R18+ rating) would be banned completely, as is the case in Australia for media such as movies, television and video games. The aim of it is to stop online exploitation of children such as child pornography, though the logistics of how the government intends to do this is quite unclear. As the ‘No Clean Feed’ website states:

The proposed filter will only filter unencrypted web (HTTP) traffic. Not only will it be trivial to circumvent by those who want to, but it will not be able to stop the distribution of illegal child sexual abuse material on encrypted peer-to-peer networks, where the greatest majority such material is traded.

In order to address concerns about the sexual exploitation of children, greater investment is required in police investigations who are able to infiltrate the secretive groups where this child sexual abuse material is distributed and charge those who are creating and sharing this material.

Some individuals would actually like the filter to be stronger than this, blocking pornography and gambling websites, though certainly most of the criticism of the filter has come from the other side of the spectrum – people feel that any clean feed would be both ineffectual and would infringe on people’s freedoms. This paper (opens in pdf) talks a bit about these issues and this website features some of the negative reactions to the proposed scheme.

From the case of the clean filter, it seems that the internet is open to scrutiny and its ‘free’ status is a precarious one. While one may be able to quite easily circumvent filters, the internet may not always be categorically ‘free’. And thus, the influence of government in deciding what content people should and should not be able to access is not reflective of an inherently neoliberal stance.

To Summarise:
In many countries, the internet is not completely free at all, there is a great deal of government interference and regulation. Thus, it would seem that on this point, the internet is not inherently for small-government, neoliberal policies. However, through the existence of the internet as a globalising force, the internet can act as a way to put pressure on governments to take on more neoliberal policies.

One Response

  1. […] post provides some particularly salient examples of how this might be. Additionally, as I explore here, internet censorship can work to enforce different political ideologies. I have found it difficult […]

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