Table of Contents

Comment Icon0 China is not the only country to manage public opinion by controlling the media, including the Internet. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has documented Internet censorship across 22 countries worldwide, yet China often receives the brunt of the blame because it was the first to launch such an elaborate program to censor online speech and to monitor email and text messaging. In fact, China’s approach to online censorship is so technically sophisticated, that countries such as Vietnam, Zimbabwe and Thailand have adopted its practices (Committee to Protect Journalists, 2008). To support its censorship effort, it is estimated that the Chinese government employs 30,000 Internet censors (or cybercops) whose job is to monitor web content and activities in China (Human Rights Watch, 2008). The official Xinhua News Agency confirmed with an early report that “[t]he Ministry of Public Security will be dispatching virtual cops to China’s major websites. […] All major portals and online forums will be monitored” (Nie, 2007). These Chinese cybercops periodically appear on contentious discussion forums as police mascots Jing Jing and Cha Cha, which serve as visual warnings to Internet users that they are being monitored.

Comment Icon0 Even with China’s broad censorship strategy, there are more authoritarian countries that practise exacting forms of censorship. To assess the political conditions for blogging worldwide, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) recently polled regional experts with the following eight questions (Committee to Protect Journalists, 2009):

  1. Comment Icon0
  2. Does a country jail bloggers?
  3. Do bloggers face harassment, cyber-attacks, threats, assaults or other reprisals?
  4. Do bloggers self-censor to protect themselves?
  5. Does the government limit connectivity or restrict access to the Internet?
  6. Are bloggers required to register with the government or an ISP and give a verifiable name and address before blogging?
  7. Does a country have regulations or laws that can be used to censor bloggers?
  8. Does the government monitor citizens who use the Internet?
  9. Does the government use filtering technology to block or censor the Internet?

Comment Icon0 Out of the 10 worst countries for a blogger to be in, CPJ researchers determined that China came in eighth because it still had a vibrant digital culture despite intense online censorship. This was in part due to the Chinese government dutifully providing Internet access for nearly 300 million people, which is more than any other country in the world. Under Myanmar’s authoritarian military junta, Burma ranked first with the world’s most restrictive media censorship, especially since it was one of 30 countries with less than 1% Internet penetration (Wang, 2007). Authorities have even been known to shut down the Internet during the August 2007 Myanmar anti-government protest. Myanmar was followed by Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Egypt, which had emerged as the leading online oppressors in the Middle East and North Africa. Among Asia’s worst blogging nations, Vietnam joined China in having a growing blogging culture under extensive monitoring and restriction. Finally, Cuba and Turkmenistan make up the last two nations where Internet access is heavily restricted.

Comment Icon0 To date, China’s own web industry has started to dominate in terms of the sheer size of its user base. In February 2008, The Guardian reported that the world’s most popular blog, which boasted 137 million visitors, was called “Lao Xu” and was authored by Chinese actor and director Xu Jinglei. Trumping Youtube as distributor of online video was Tudou, which claimed to have overtaken this popular American video-sharing service with over one billion megabytes of data transfers every day. In the Mandarin search engine market, there is Baidu, which has beaten Google in terms of Chinese traffic. Finally, Alibaba has humbled eBay and even taking over Yahoo’s operations in China (Watts, 2008).

Comment Icon0 As an acid test, from the Freedom House assessments in 186 countries, it was evident that press control was becoming subtler and less detectable in Europe, Latin America and where “Asian values” are projected to control internal and external news and information flows. For 400 years, governments learned to censor each new medium as it appeared. The independence of the Internet, the study concluded, would become the newest test of a government’s will to encourage and sustain a free press (Sussman, 2000). To benchmark China’s Internet policies, OpenNet Initiative (ONI) measure of Internet filtering would be used for comparing particular countries and their Internet regulation. From ONI’s country profiles, there are five levels of Internet filtering – Pervasive, Substantial, Selective, Suspected and No Evidence. The results are shown in Table 3, which compares Internet filtering data from the ONI web site (OpenNet Initiative, 2007).

Unknown Pervasive Substantial Selective No Evidence
Cuba Iran China Bahrain Afghanistan
North Korea Oman Myanmar Ethiopia Algeria
Saudi Arabia India Azerbaijan
Sudan Morocco Belarus
Syria Pakistan Egypt
Tunisia Thailand Iraq
United Arab Emirates Uzbekistan Israel
Vietnam Jordan
Yemen Kazakhstan
Kyrgyzstan
Libya
Malaysia
Moldova
Nepal
Singapore
South Korea
Tajikistan
Ukraine
Venezuela
Zimbabwe

Comment Icon0 Table 3: Internet-filtering levels based on country profiles (OpenNet Initiative, 2007)

Comment Icon0 For the purpose of this study, an “unknown” category is applied for countries where no empirical data could be retrieved, such as Cuba and North Korea. According to ONI’s methodology, pervasive filtering is characterized by both its depth of blocking targeted content in a given category and its breadth in filtering in several categories of a given theme. Substantial filtering has either depth or breadth, where either a number of categories are subject to a medium level of filtering, or a low level of filtering is carried out across many categories. Selective filtering refers to targeted forms of filtering used to blocks a small number of specific sites across a few categories, or filtering that targets a single issue. Suspected filtering is represented by abnormalities in connectivity, which suggests presence of filtering, although studies were unable to confirm conclusively that inaccessible Websites were the result of deliberate tampering. Finally, no evidence of filtering is characterized by the lack of evidence of any websites being blocked. While ONI’s results are not exhaustive, it offers a starting point for comparing how Internet filtering is commonplace across the globe, except that it varies according to intensity.

Comment Icon0 Several other organizations have also been monitoring how various countries filter Internet content. The Reporters without Borders organization listed 13 “enemies of the Internet” (Reporters Without Borders, 2006b), which were Belarus, Burma, People’s Republic of China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. Interestingly, when their list is compared with OpenNet Initiative’s Internet filtering report of 2007, it becomes clear that Belarus, Egypt and perhaps Uzbekistan have reduced the intensity of their Internet filters. Since sweeping changes to national regulations can occur within the span of just one year, it would be prudent to note that such events showcase the fickle nature of Internet usage policies across particular countries. Nevertheless, recent reports have shown how China has not been a nation with the most restricted form of Internet filtering.

Comment Icon0 Looking towards China’s cultural vicinity, the Asian region is home to some of the most and least connected countries in the world. While Japan, South Korea and Singapore all have Internet penetration rates of over 65%, Afghanistan, Myanmar and Nepal are just three of 30 countries with less than 1% of its citizens online (International Telecommunication Union, 2008). Besides China, the OpenNet Initiative Report (2007) found that Myanmar and Vietnam relied heavily on pervasive filtering as a central method for shaping public knowledge. These three countries filtered political content to the greatest extent, spanning human rights issues, reform and opposition activities, independent media and news, and discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities. Comparatively, the filtering practices of the remaining countries in Asia tested by ONI filtered selectively based on particular topics. India focused on content related to ethnic and religious conflict, South Korea on sites containing North Korean propaganda or promoting the reunification of North and South Korea, while the governments of Singapore, Thailand, China, Pakistan and Myanmar blocked online pornographic content.

Chapter 2.4 – Internet Censorship: China vs the World

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