Law in the Internet Society

Living Behind the "Great FireWall? "

-- By VanessaWheeler - 03 Dec 2012


The first time I tried to search “Tiananmen Square Massacre” while living in China, a strange thing happened. Nothing remotely relevant came up. There were a couple search results about upcoming events near Tiananmen Square or about its older history but nothing about the events of 1989. I was disturbed but not surprised. I had performed the search after a lecture from one of our professors, also a prominent member of the Communist party, in which he responded to one of my classmates’ questions by telling us that there had never been a massacre at Tiananmen Square. He seemed uncomfortable saying it and later admitted that he’d been a soldier stationed elsewhere at the time, hearing rumors and nothing more. He ended class soon after.

I lived in China for almost a year as part of a direct-exchange program between my university and one in Chengdu. There were a lot of aspects of living in China that were new to me; Chengdu hasn’t been as touched by foreigners as cities like Beijing or Shanghai, so we were still a novelty. People stared and pointed at us, stopped to take photos of us, or wanted to practice English with us. Grandmothers and children would reach out to stroke my hair without warning, commenting on “the foreigner’s pretty hair” and wondering aloud how I’d gotten it so curly. Traffic seemed deadly, the streets were always crowded, the air was almost too polluted to breathe, all the lotion products had skin whitening agents in them, and the black markets for stolen bikes and pirated DVDs operated in the open streets.

It’s surprising how easy it is to acclimate to those differences. By a few months in, what had seemed strange about China when I first arrived started to feel normal. It didn’t bother me much anymore, and I’d laugh when newly arrived foreigners commented on the foreignness of it.

The "Great FireWall? "

But there was one thing I could never adapt to: the stringent control the government held over the internet. There would be days when I tried to open google or youtube and found that they were completely restricted with no explanation for why. My searches were clearly filtered in a way they never had been before, making my research project on minority groups in China particularly difficult to complete. At one point, I even lost access to my email account, a loss which occurred shortly after I sent an email home lamenting on the restricted internet access. It was alarming to realize that I was being watched and coerced by a force that was unseen. The worst point was during the anniversary of the Tibetan riots. The internet just stopped working all together for several days where we were. I couldn’t send anything out and no one could send anything in. It was strange how cut off and insecure I felt when the internet disappeared. It was a feeling that followed me out into the streets, where suddenly there were officers with rifles checking people’s identification on the streets.

It occurred to me then, as I reached into my purse to make sure that my passport was there (knowing that I could be taken to jail and held there until it was retrieved if I did not have it on me), how similar the two actions were. The ability to follow someone on the internet silently is not all that different from the armed officer’s ability to stop you on the street and know who you are and where you’re going for no reason at all. They were both intrusive, coercive acts, and they were both chilling.

Getting Over the Wall

For a while, I just assumed everyone accepted it as the natural course and certainly there were some who did. Then, after I’d been there half a year, a Chinese friend of mine corrected this assumption. I’d been complaining to him about a recent restriction on google and how it was interfering with a paper I was writing, and I turned him and asked, “How do you live like this all the time?”

He grinned at me and responded, “I don’t.”

Without another word, he pulled out his laptop, booted it up, and showed me the software he’d installed to get around government firewalls. He explained that it linked him into a proxy server of some kind. It was slower at times and could be frustrating, but it never got censored by government firewalls, and he could perform all the searches that would be filtered out on my computer. When I asked him where he got it, he would say no more than that a friend had designed it and given it to him. When I asked him how many people had it, he just smiled.

I’d always thought that the only way the “great firewall” would be overcome would be if large corporations—software developers and internet suppliers—simply refused to comply. Now I’m beginning to think it’s possible that greater internet freedom could be achieved through the individual, through people creating and distributing their own software. It would likely take longer and likely become very dangerous, but if given help, say with a device like the Freedom box, there are enough people that genuinely want unrestricted access that I think it would spread and become nearly impossible to control.

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r2 - 23 Aug 2014 - 19:33:51 - EbenMoglen
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