In Brief: Google’s China Move

UPDATE: A more detailed version of this Backgrounder for news reporters can be downloaded as a PDF version.

Google announced today in a blog post that it has redirected visitors headed for google.cn to google.com.hk.

So earlier today we stopped censoring our search services—Google Search, Google News, and Google Images—on Google.cn. Users visiting Google.cn are now being redirected to Google.com.hk, where we are offering uncensored search in simplified Chinese, specifically designed for users in mainland China and delivered via our servers in Hong Kong.

As someone based in both Beijing and Hong Kong for significant periods in the 2000s and has been asked to comment on Google-China previously, here’s a backgrounder with some basic questions I’ve answered for reporters about the issue.

  • Google.cn servers are located within the borders of the PRC, and are subject to the ICP (Internet content provider) licensing scheme. Google had been self-censoring its search results to retain its ICP license. In the PRC, it is up to the operating entity to make sure it does not run afoul of the content guidelines put out by the authorities.
  • This morning, California time, Google changed things such that traffic to google.cn started to be redirected to the google.com.hk site, in the simplified Chinese character mode. (Hong Kong and Taiwan use traditional Chinese characters, while the mainland uses simplified. They are somewhat mutually intelligible, but it does require some adjustment in reading to  get used to the other system. More info here.)
  • Hong Kong SAR (Special Administrative Region) while technically part of China, is completely separate in terms of free speech, expression and rule of law. (See “One country, two systems.”) After it was handed over in 1997 by the Brits, it has had its own chief executive and Legislative Council independent of Beijing. Rule of law is strong in Hong Kong, with PRC dissidents and naysayers operating freely and in the open.
  • Hong Kong’s Internet service and content providers are not subject to PRC’s censorship regime. The Great Firewall of China also does not play a part in content coming into or out of Hong Kong with the rest of the world.
  • Google.com.hk results are not censored to conform with PRC ICP guidelines because being located in Hong Kong, it is governed by HK SAR laws.
  • Content between Hong Kong and the PRC *are* subject to filtering by the Great Firewall, because HK is considered outside the mainland’s domestic Internet. For that reason, even though Google.com.hk is not censored by Google, the HTTP stream (ie. Web traffic) going between HK and PRC may be interrupted by the Great Firewall, based on content. This is often seen as a “Connection reset” by the user.
  • It is possible that in the future, the Google.com.hk domain name or Internet protocol address may be blocked as a whole, but they don’t appear to be so right now.
  • While Google.cn Search, News and Images are now being redirected to HK, the Video, Music, Maps and Translate sites are not, and still seem to be hitting PRC domestic servers. (Google Music has gained notoriety because it provides free, legal downloads of popular music via top100.cn).

China’s just waking to the reality that Google.cn (now Google.com.hk) is now subject to the Great Firewall. Let the commenting begin.

GreenDam postponed

It’s July 1, and in China the ominous deadline to implement the Green Dam/Youth Escort internet filtering software has been postponed, to much rejoicing by Internet users in the country.

Green Dam graphic in China Daily

To outsiders, this must seem quite puzzling. Why would China’s “totalitarian” system need to back down on this?

This should be seen as a case study on how the complexities of China’s decision system is much more nuanced than what a “Communist” regime would suggest, and the role of citizen deliberation in a new, upwardly mobile, aspirational, IT-savvy China.

While the outside world sees the PRC government in absolute control, in reality the heavy handed, top down authoritarian system rides on a delicate balance of, bottom up public consent that supports the state’s legitimacy.

Here’s why Green Dam illustrates this quite well.

China’s Internet filtering is by far the most advanced in the world in terms of precision and scale. But until now, it happened in the “cloud,” in far off intangible spaces through two main vehicles:

  • One is through massive domestic Web site content regulation through revokable Internet Content Provider licenses (ICP). Operators have to self-censor through technical or human means to please the authorities regarding general guidelines on taboo topics. Keywords are banned and discussion topics are forbidden. In some cases, explicit timely edicts are required, such as for significant June anniversaries, sensitive political meetings (People’s Congress) or poor construction standards in Sichuan earthquake zones. Even with these, China’s netizens have come up with clever tricks and puns to get around many of these automated filtering systems.
  • The other is the Great Firewall, the blocking of what foreign Web sites China users can surf. The implementation is clever, in that restrictions show up as technical errors (connection reset, site not found/unreachable) and curb behavior through uncertainty and doubt about a site’s reach-ability, rather than fear. You don’t know whether it’s the Internet acting flaky, or whether a site is actually being filtered. Tech-savvy users can trivially circumvent this.

But you don’t need perfect censorship to have effective censorship. Both these systems do quite well for the PRC government in keeping the 3T1F topics outside the mainstream, and ensuring that the government is not embarrassed by reporting on its incompetence.

The key, here is that both the domestic and international filtering activities happened in the cloud, the ether, the machines that comprise the Internet. It wasn’t in your home and it didn’t intrude beyond the cable to your desk.

Green Dam suddenly put the specter of restriction, surveillance and control in your home.

With that one stroke, which probably seemed like the next logical innocuous extension of the censorship regime for PRC bureaucrats, the government took the big miscalculation of crossing into the the private space, and the personal property of China’s citizens. And that’s where the outrage came.

This was the camel’s nose into the private tent of Internet users. A poll on China’s major sites (Sina, Netease, et al) all showed over 3/4 of respondents said Green Dam was not necessary or a bad idea.

(NB: China is not the first or the only government wanting to censor Internet traffic for content. Australia’s Clean Feed proposal to covertly filter out sites at the ISP level has been under fire from their netizens, and was unceremoniously put on hiatus as well. Most public schools and libraries in the United States implement content filtering at some level. This is not a uniquely China issue.)

What the authorities in China didn’t realize was how serious that breach of boundary would be.

I knew it was going to be a tough road for Green Dam when it appeared the MIIT initiative was not a unified effort. Before leaving for my travels, I did commentaries with the Associated Press, Deutsche Welle, Al Jazeera and others, making the point that even China’s official news outlets were openly questioning Green Dam’s legitimacy. The new Global Times newspaper, which has been rather frank about other issues, led off with serious questions about the software’s safety.

Then came the big one.

China Daily, the official mouthpiece of the government, was publishing criticisms of Green Dam shortly after it was announced, even publishing Photoshop’ed illustrations of netizens mocking the system. (“Outrage over bid to tame Web“, China Daily, June 18, 2009)

One picture it included with the article was a “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” multiple choice question describing Green Dam as “spyware” with “systemic flaws” that could be “exploited by hackers.” Another cartoon shows a gray hand of censorship coming from the computer screen and stiff-arming a computer user in the face.

Green Dam illustration in China Daily

It was clear at this point, the Green Dam initiative was from a smaller portion of the PRC bureaucracy, and not from the highest levels. China Daily would have never published something so critical if it was of the highest-level of agenda pushing.

China’s netizens were speaking, and the media and government were taking notice (and with higher ups looking the other way). So while this was not democracy in action, it certainly was something in action.

At TEDxShanghai last month, I described the phenomenon of Wikipedia and Twitter forming the basis of a new online commons where global netizens come to share and reinforce memes across geographic and social boundaries (SlideShare presentation). For years, enthusiastic faith-based technology enthusiasts hoped the Internet would bring democracy to any place it touched. This has been spectacularly elusive. On the flipside, some viewed the new Web 2.0 social revolution as “socialist”, “collectivist” and at worst, Maoist. That’s been inaccurate as well.

Instead, I describe the new borderless, socially agile, activist associations that crop up on the Internet as a new system of ‘deliberative adhocracy’. Alvin Toffler, and later Cory Doctorow, used adhocracy to describe a new form of rule based ephemeral associations that “capture opportunities, solve problems, and get results.” (Waterman)

Whether it’s as massive as #IranElection to bring global awareness to its politics, or as small as #MotrinMoms to discuss outrage at an insulting advertisement, we now have an online information commons (Twitter) and knowledge commons (Wikipedia) that supports a space for the new distributed Zeitgeist. In China, obviously there are other analogs (Twitter clone Fanfou, Baidu Baike, BBS forums, et al.) but the effect is the same. To see deliberative adhocracy in action look no further than the Human Flesh Search Engine that metes out social justice in the absence of a strong rule of law in China.

Readers familiar with my book will know I described how a Wikipedia Revolution changed forever how we deal with free access to knowledge and its production. I will however, be quite Burke-ian in my pronouncement about the Internet’s effect on China.

Revolutions are sudden overthrows and disruptive repudiations of the status quo. China has a terrible modern history with revolutions, with more of them going bad than good. The rule law is sometimes described as when “reason trumps politics.” To China’s authorities, the Internet is being used in a deliberative process that fulfills that role. It is not perfect, nor prevalent enough to ensure social justice on a large scale. However, it is a huge step forward for a country that is convinced that after a century of turmoil, that any step must take safety and efficiency into account.

The hiatus for Green Dam, is the standard face-saving way for the government to back down. There is a good possibility it may come back in another form, watered down or otherwise. But for now, China’s netizens are having their day.

Great Firewall playing nice(r)

On the evening of July 31, 2008, Beijing time, reports started to roll in on Twitter that Web sites previously considered hard blocked in China were suddenly accessible. Among the sites now allowed for me (using Beijing CNC as ISP) and others include:

  • http://www.bbc.co.uk/chinese/
  • http://zh.wikipedia.org
  • http://www.rfa.org (Radio Free Asia)
  • http://www.atnext.com (Apple Daily HK, newspaper critical of Beijing)

These were all considered pretty firmly blocked for a long time, so it’s a pleasant surprise. Perhaps the cry of reporters in the Beijing Olympic Media Center finally made it through to the organizers that they should follow through on their promise.

Public relations-wise, putting a censored Internet in the press center simply seemed like a terribly dumb move. Yes, before the Olympics even start, why don’t you completely poke and upset the press corp and give them plenty of material for harping on human rights and censorship in China. Maybe they thought the journalists would be too busy writing about the bad pollution problems instead.

So for now, kudos to the authorities for opening up these sites, even though every indication is that the authorities will revert to pre-Olympic policies around October 17. John Kennedy suggested a betting pool as to when the sites will be reblocked. My bet: 8 hours and 8 minutes after the Olympic closing ceremony.

Let’s not forget though there are plenty of sites still blocked in China, including Tor Project, Amnesty International, Wikia, The Pirate Bay, AboutUs.org, and LiveJournal, for which Twitterer wangzhongxia could not help observing:

I don’t kno why Livejournal is a bigger threat to China than things like RFA mandarin edition

Sometimes you need a sense of humor to deal with the net nanny. 

Buffet on China

Billionaire Warren Buffet at his annual shareholder’s meeting this week warned about getting too sanctimonious in criticizing China. Via The Standard (HK).

Berkshire Hathaway chairman Warren Buffett issued strong support for the Beijing Olympics saying any effort to boycott the games would be “a terrible mistake.”

“The United States had a similar history of human rights trouble. A black man’s vote once counted as only of a white man’s vote and women were not allowed to vote at all, but in the end those issues were resolved,” he told a crowd of 31,000 in Nebraska.

Good for Buffett, one of the few folks putting things in historical perspective, something news outlets in the States fail to do.

Vice-chairman Charlie Munger via the Wall Street Journal was even more emphatic:

[Munger] didn’t pull any punches. For critics of China, “ask yourself the question: Is China more or less imperfect as the decades have gone by?” Mr. Munger, a professed admirer of Asian cultures, said. “The answer is that China is moving in the right direction. I think it’s the worst thing to pick on something about somebody you don’t like and obsess about it.”

CNN hacker tech?

Not sure where Narus.com gets their info, but they seem to have the scoop on the details of the CNN DDOS attack last week.

Multiple sites of CNN (www.cnn.com, www4.cnn.com, edition.cnn.com) were the target of these attacks. NarusInsight Secure Suite (NSS) reported 2 different kinds of attacks going towards CNN – ICMP flood attacks and TCP SYN flood attacks. Interestingly the attacks had very similar signatures, e.g. an instance of a SYN flood involved the attacker distributing his packets across multiple source ports while sending exactly the same number of packets per source port). This can be expected given that the hacker group had made it easy for the novice who could download a script to launch the attack. The highest bandwidth attack seen by NSS was an 80 Mbps SYN flood attack, while the others were much less than that.

They seem to think that the DDOS attack was not successful, saying, “Fortunately, there were no large scale attacks and CNN.com was very much up and running.”

However there was widespread news of flakiness for a whole day, with China and US users finding timeouts and unreachable servers.

No Dogs or Frenchmen

You have to give China’s citizens credit — when they’re unleashed (no pun intended) and able to express their dismay, they can get creative. Over at Shanghaiist, they have the latest sign to make the rounds, declaring on the taxicab: “refuse to carry frenchmen and dogs.”

Of course all good moviegoers and Bruce Lee fans will recognize this as a nod to the film “Fist of Fury” where Lee kicks down the hated sign, “No dogs and Chinese allowed.”

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Roland Soong of ESWN did a good post in helping to decipher whether this sign was authentic or not. Though given the current climate, accuracy isn’t exactly first on peoples’ list of priorities.

The Sports Network hacked

An ominous message showed up early Sunday on the Web site of The Sports Network (TSN), one of the more popular sports news destinations in the US:

Please Note

The Sports Network website and other major news sites have been hacked by a political entity from China, and as a result are temporarily unavailable. We apologize for any inconvenience and hope to be back up and running as soon as possible. Thank you for your patience and understanding.

Sports Network Management

Reached by phone at TSN’s main office in Pennsylvania, statistician Bob Nelson said the site was hacked “by a group out of China” early Sunday morning around 2 a.m. EST. It was after the Mets-Phillies game where the public site and the data TSN sends to clients were affected.

Staff took down the public website after it had been vandalized with the message, “Tibet was, is and always will be a part of China.” It’s not clear what “political entity” the site outage message refers to.
TSN was working to get the site back up sometime Monday.

For a snapshot of The Sports Network site in normal operation, please see the Google cache.

Exporting democracy

ABC News is getting roundly criticized about the way it produced the Obama-Clinton debates yesterday. It’s was so bad, there are over 12,000 comments on the ABC News site related to the debate. A sample:

I am disgusted with ABC, Stephanopoulos and Gibson. The “Debate” was nothing more than tabloid journalism. It was a disgrace. There were two hours to ask questions that would showcase the candidates’ policies and approaches to some of “THE” toughest challenges this country has ever faced and you chose to spend most of the time on nonsense. From snipers to Jeremiah Wright to lapel pins. Do you think that’s what we care about? ABC, Stephanopoulos and Gibson you owe Americans a profound apology for this wasted opportunity and their sensationalism of non issues.

This appears to be more than typical “astroturfing.” These are folks who actually took the time to write angry grafs like the above, rather than simply pressing a “vote” button.
Perhaps more to the point was this from Will Bunch from the Philly Daily News:

With your performance tonight — your focus on issues that were at best trivial wastes of valuable airtime and at worst restatements of right-wing falsehoods, punctuated by inane “issue” questions that in no way resembled the real world concerns of American voters — you disgraced my profession of journalism, and, by association, me and a lot of hard-working colleagues who do still try to ferret out the truth, rather than worry about who can give us the best deal on our capital gains taxes. But it’s even worse than that. By so badly botching arguably the most critical debate of such an important election, in a time of both war and economic misery, you disgraced the American voters, and in fact even disgraced democracy itself. Indeed, if I were a citizen of one of those nations where America is seeking to “export democracy,” and I had watched the debate, I probably would have said, “no thank you.” Because that was no way to promote democracy.

Touche.

Second Amendment Mojo

I’ve learned something this US election cycle.

Instead of paying phony lip service to the NRA and right-wing gun lobby like Hillary “Annie Oakley” Clinton, every American politician should have a picture on file, waiting in the wings, like this:

Of course, with several captions ready to go:

  • “The wife and I have a different idea when it comes to ‘shooting the breeze.’”
  • “Yes honey, next time you can use the M4 Carbine and I’ll settle for the nancy H&K MP5 9mm peashooter.”
  • “See? Not all journalists are left wing crunchy granola bleeding heart liberals. We shoot to kill.”
  • “Live fire exercises with 5.56mm rounds? No big deal. I’ve been through Wikipedia edit wars with more casualties.”

PS: Barack, mocking Hillary Clinton probably wasn’t a very smart move for you.