Ben Laurie blathering

The Great Firewall of China

Catching up with my email after being out and about for a while, I came across this article by the Open Rights Group

Microsoft, Yahoo! and Google are each singled out for criticism in the report. Although they have defended themselves by claiming China’s laws force them to censor internet material, it is significant that none of the companies has been willing or able to precisely specify which laws or legal processes oblige this censorship.

This rather missed the point. As my friend Richard Clayton (and many others, but I’m familiar with his paper) has documented, the firewall filters based on keywords, so search engines either comply with the filtering rules or get blocked. The firewall itself is obviously run by the government, who choose the keywords, so to that extent it is Chinese laws that force compliance with censorship.

In any case, I’m generally struggling with the concept that some kinds of censorship are OK when others are not. No-one seems to mind that Yahoo!, for example, complied with France’s demand that it not allow the sale of Nazi memorabilia. Similarly the UK’s rules on “hate speech” disallow certain topics; but that, apparently, is hunky dory. It seems to me that all censorship is to be despised, so why pick on China in particular?

There is also this important question: are the citizens of China better served by a censored search engine or no search engine at all? Keyword-based filtering is well known to be far from perfect, so presumably the average Chinese citizen can easily figure ways around it. Furthermore, all they need is a good proxy and they can easily get at the uncensored versions of the ‘net available in the rest of the world.

(Declaration of interest: I am a director of the Open Rights Group and an employee of Google).


  1. Interestingly enough the House of Commons’ Select Committee on Foreign Affairs did not single out Cisco for the firewall. They singled out Microsoft, Yahoo! and Google, giving examples where each had complied with Chinas requests at the expense of freedom of speech. “We conclude that the collaboration of Western internet companies in the censorship and policing of the internet for political purposes is morally unacceptable.”

    As you say the some kinds of censorship are OK argument can be very hypocritical a charge that China has repeatedly and to be honest reasonably used.
    Spy Blog points out that John Reid kept quiet, whilst Franco Frattini, the Vice-President and EU Commissioner responsible for Justice, Freedom and Security wittered on about “blocking websites” which incite people to terrorism or which provide “bomb making instructions”.

    As investigative journalist and expert witness Duncan Campbell demonstrated during the Scrambling for Safety 8 conference, this sort of policy would have to include blocking, censoring or “taking down” websites in the United States of America, such as Yahoo Groups, or Wikipedia, or the Google search engine, because that is where most of the “home made” bomb making instructions and chemical or biological weapons information available on the web is authored and published.

    Comment by Glyn — 22 Aug 2006 @ 14:15

  2. And how do you feel about the censorship of email?

    It’s rather hard for me to send email to strangers these
    days. I run a well known “open relay” on my main mail server, and run Tor with port 25 open on another server.

    For some reason, anti-spammers seem really rabid about censoring open relays, even though I seem to be running the only one in existence.

    Comment by John Gilmore — 26 Aug 2006 @ 7:59

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