October 4, 2002
BOB GARFIELD: We're back with On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Censorship has been a part of internet life in China since the nation moved into cyberspace. China routinely blocks foreign news, pornography and whatever is politically sensitive. In a nation where information lockdowns are the norm, restrictions like these might be expected, but internet users in China were outraged when the search engine Google was completely blocked for several days in early September. It was later restored, sort of. Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain, faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet in Society, monitors internet access in countries like China. Since Google is the search engine of choice for many of China's roughly 45 million internet users, the uproar was no surprise. But soon after that, he says, things got a little strange in cyberspace.
JONATHAN ZITTRAIN: After a few days of that uproar, one noticed, when asking for Google, actually getting a different search engine back -- so you would type in www.google.com, and you would get back the University of Peking's search engine for their university or one of several other search engines tailored for Chinese users and perhaps not with the same political sensitivity that Google is thought to have. The next shoe to drop so far as we can tell was that access to Google was then restored, but then the behaviors became much more subtle; an almost Skinneresque sort of conditioning technique where innocuous searches on Google -- you type in something like red hate -- can return results as they normally would. But if one puts in a possibly politically sensitive phrase like Jiang Zemin, in the midst of that search some of the results'll start feeding back, and then as if the system is thinking better of it, only half the page of results'll load, and from that no more Google for you for about 20 minutes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Now does Beijing typically block search engines or does Google pose a particular threat?
JONATHAN ZITTRAIN:Of course this is all speculation, but as best Ben and I can tell, Google may pose a particular problem for Chinese censors because it has this feature called Cached Page. Normally in the search results you click on the result and you are then taken to the site in question that was returned as one of the results, and China could simply try to block those sites among the results it doesn't like. The cached page feature of Google which many other search engines simply don't have lets you see what Google saw in order to give that to you as a result to begin with, and in that case you're getting the page as Google saw it, which is probably quite close to the page as it really is, and it may have been that which had the Chinese authorities thinking best to block all of Google because we want to block those cached pages so that they can't be used as an end run around visiting the sites themselves. Now what we're seeing is a more subtle form of filtering that may reflect an advance in the technologies that China is using to censor the net.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Well this is part of what I don't understand. Why is China going through the trouble? There are Chinese search engines. Why not just block the foreign search engines altogether and require internet users to use their local search engines?
JONATHAN ZITTRAIN: Well that may really have been sort of Plan A; exactly what we saw when one asked for Google and got back these other search engines. I think it may well be, however, that they're doing their best not to unduly make the internet less useful as an engine of economic progress or just to unduly anger those who have quite quickly within certain strata at least in China felt themselves pretty reliant on the internet. So the more that they can throw out bath water but not baby, thanks to these more sophisticated tools, the more you'd expect them to do exactly that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Of course none of that really copes with the anger of the internet user in China.
JONATHAN ZITTRAIN:Yes. And this may also explain why the blocking in China is as opaque as they can make it, and by that I mean, when one can't get to a site-- one can't assume immediately it's because of some political decision by a censor. It just might be network traffic problems. In Saudi Arabia by contrast where there's also a state-run filtering regime, if you ask for a site that's off-limits you actually get a message that says sorry -- this is off-limits; here's why; here's the policy. And here's a link you follow if you think we've mistakenly categorized it to plead an appeal! It's possibly indicating that for the Saudis it's more important for their government to make a show of filtering without necessarily having the regime have a lot of bite, where for the Chinese government it may be exactly the opposite -- they want to ruffle as few feathers as possible while still doing the filtering that's important to them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So if you hit on something that's being blocked in China you'll get an obfuscatory message like "Is currently unavailable or" "Network traffic" or "Link temporarily down" -the sorts of things that anybody encountering a computer glitch might get?
JONATHAN ZITTRAIN: Yeah-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And no sign of censorship?
JONATHAN ZITTRAIN: And those are typically the messages that one's own computer conveys when the computer gives up waiting for whoever's on the other end of the connection who's supposed to respond when they don't respond.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:What about all those optimistic prognosticators that said once the internet got to these repressive regimes, the regimes would slowly collapse under the scrutiny of open society, of free communication. In other words once you get the internet, the toothpaste starts leaving the tube and there isn't any way to get it back in.
JONATHAN ZITTRAIN: Yes. What Jamie Boyle calls the so-called Libertarian gotcha. [LAUGHTER] I think a lot of libertarians touting that gotcha as a technical fact of life rather than something to be fought for are having a hangover. It may be worth noting that the United States now has seen its first instance of government-mandated blocking of sites by internet service providers, and what I'm talking about is the State of Pennsylvania which passed a law last April entitling the attorney general to designate certain destinations on the internet as having child pornography on it. That pornography is not protected by the First Amendment in the first instance, and the Pennsylvania attorney general can get a court order demanding that any internet service provider serving Pennsylvania customers see to it that those customers can't get to those web sites. And these are the very technologies in which China has the lead, in which perhaps our own internet service providers in the United States may be asking for some help or re-inventing some wheels trying to effectuate the same sort of filtering here -- just for very different reasons and for a very different kind of site.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well this was fascinating!
JONATHAN ZITTRAIN: Well, good! Thank you!
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Jonathan Zittrain is a Harvard Law professor and the faculty co-director of the Berman Center for Internet in Society. If you're interested in seeing whether a given web site is censored in China, you can find a link to the Berkman Center's real-time test page at our site at onthemedia.org.