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Blocked China Web users rage against Great Firewall

BEIJING (Reuters) - Yang Zhou is no cyberdissident, but recent curbs on his Web surfing habits by China’s censors have him fomenting discontent about China’s “Great Firewall”.

Yang’s fury erupted a few days ago when he found he could not browse his friend’s holiday snaps on Flickr.com, due to access restrictions by censors after images of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre were posted on the photo-sharing Web site.”

“Once you’ve complained all you can to your friends, what more can you do? What else is there but anger and disillusionment?” Yang said after venting his anger with friends at a hot-pot restaurant in Beijing.

The blocking of Flickr is the latest casualty of China’s ongoing battle to control its sprawling Internet. Wikipedia, and a raft of other popular Web sites, discussion boards and blogs have already fallen victim to the country’s censors.

China employs a complex system of filters and an army of tens of thousands of human monitors to survey the country’s 140 million Internet users’ surfing habits and surgically clip sensitive content from in front of their eyes.

Its stability-obsessed government says the surveillance machinery, commonly known as the “Great Firewall”, is necessary to let Internet users enjoy a “healthy” online environment and build a “harmonious” society.

Yang just thinks it’s a pain.

“I just want to look at some photos! What’s wrong with that?” said the 24-year-old accountant, typical of millions of young urban-dwelling professionals who are increasingly aware of and fed up with state intrusions into their private life.

Privacy, once regarded with suspicion in pre-reform China, has become a sought-after commodity among China’s burgeoning middle class, according to Nicholas Bequelin from Hong Kong-based Human Rights Watch.

“Of course, it’s the first thing people seek when they have the economic resources,” Bequelin said. “We see this growing in China in the wake of ideas of ownership and property.”

An internet user browses for information on the Chinese version of search engine Google in Beijing in this January 25, 2006 file photo. China employs a complex system of filters and an army of tens of thousands of human monitors to survey the country's 140 million Internet users' surfing habits and surgically clip sensitive content from in front of their eyes. REUTERS/Stringer/Files

PRIVACY BATTLES

Away from cyberspace, the battle for privacy between China’s secretive government and its increasingly active citizens has turned violent in recent months.

In Bobai county, in the southern region of Guangxi, hundreds of farmers smashed government offices and burnt cars after local officials imposed punitive fines on residents who had defied family planning laws and had too many children.

The battle for control of China’s Internet, however, will remain much more covert than confrontational, according to Liu Bin, an IT consultant with Beijing-based consulting firm BDA.

He believes it will take a long time before the government loosens control over web content, especially because the Internet-savvy middle class is unlikely to take to the streets -- like the farmers of Bobai county -- over lack of web access.

“Many educated people feel they can accept the current status quo because it doesn’t have much impact on their daily lives ... They have been living with government propaganda for over 1,000 years,” Liu said.

Such an attitude grates on Du Dongjin, a 40 year-old IT worker in Shanghai.

Du has decided to sue his Internet service provider, the Shanghai branch of state-owned behemoth China Telecom, who he said had blocked a Web site that had carried financial software he hoped to market.

“If the court authorities aren’t influenced and they can hear the case fairly, I will win,” Du said.

ANONYMOUS GRIEVANCES

Most frustrated Web surfers, however, would rather air their grievances in the relatively safe realms of Internet anonymity.

They still have their anonymity because a state push to have China’s millions of bloggers register with their real names to ensure they only posted “responsible” Web content was abandoned after an outcry from the Internet industry and due to the impossible task of keeping lists of exploding numbers of users.

“The thirst for information in China is so strong, it is very difficult for the (Communist) Party to stay ahead of the curve,” Bequelin explained.

Within days of the blocking of Flickr, links to browser plug-ins and how-to explanations to subvert the filters and see Flickr photos were gleefully posted on blogs and in chat-rooms.

Many posts were preceded by tirades against the censors for “harmonizing” Flickr.

One blogger posted an image of a voodoo doll, calling it the Great Firewall and inviting users to -- digitally -- stick pins in it.

Yang said restrictions on Flickr probably wouldn’t motivate him to write a blog, much less push him down the road of “potentially dangerous” activism.

But he liked the idea of the Great Firewall voodoo doll.

“Have you got the link? Maybe I’ll go stick a pin in it,” he said.

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