On “Internet censorship doesn’t matter because I can use a VPN”
Internet censorship and control is rather more subtle, pernicious and sinister than simply attempting to block sites from the entire population, part of a greater whole in terms of government and corporate control of information and increasingly effective and widespread across the planet.
Perhaps misapprehension about the intent and efficacy results in the apparent complacency – people still think ‘censorship v1.0′, which was superseded years ago, and if blocking (for example) can possibly be circumvented then it isn’t a big deal.
I’m certain China’s government is well aware it can’t block everything, but that doesn’t stop any of its myriad interferences with online traffic – nor the interferences of those who want to avoid upsetting the government, e.g. the service and content providers and internet users obliged to register with their real names.
China’s regulations governing internet use are very widely drawn – there’s the inevitable, expected expected stuff like prohibition of criminal activity to things like distortion of the truth, rumour spreading, insults and injuring the reputation of the state, criticism and debate of public policy positions. There is retroactive law here, too – the government is OK with retroactively declaring something a crime.
ISPs must keep records of their subscribers and monitor their internet usage in detail, keeping records for the police – subscribers must register with their local police station. Internet Content Providers (e.g. Yahoo) must apply for a licence before operating, identify and keep records about their users, monitor all content on their systems and promptly remove from public view and report inappropriate or illegal content (keeping it for 60 days, or more if requested) – they are made responsible for the content they show, some decide to err on the side of caution.
Many citizens use cybercafes. Not all cybercafes are licensed – they are supposed to be. The government has shut down tens of thousands of cybercafes. Cybercafes are required to install monitoring and filtering systems, to block porn and subversive content, keep detailed logs linking users (by demanding presentation of the citizen’s identity card before allowing the use of their internet connection) to the pages they visit, which must be made available to the Culture Department and Public Security Bureau on request, log attempts to visit blocked pages, and report all unlawful activity to the Culture Department and PSB.
If you want to run a legal ISP, ICP or cybercafe there are complex and expensive licensing requirements, mandatory inspections, prescribed minimums for available capital and the number of employees and wide restrictions on the types of content to which you allow access.
Bloggers (including microbloggers such as tumblrs) must register with their real names. Where it has been studied, real name registration inhibits behaviour – people tend to self-censor, there is a chilling effect on speech.
China filters the internet – using the Golden Shield, aka the Great Firewall – by means such as IP blocks, DNS poisoning, keyword filtering (e.g. web search results) and user blocking (e.g. where a search result is a banned word, the user’s connection is terminated for long periods). They don’t filter all content – possibly because that’s too resource-intensive today. But they do filter a lot of content. Officially, “superstitious, pornographic, violence-related, gambling and other harmful information”. Also, content relating to opposition parties, Tibet, the independence of Taiwan, Tiananmen Square, collective action (e.g. protests) – again, not all of it, but a lot of it. There is overblocking too, because they accept overblocking as a trade-off – e.g. they’ll block blogspot.com if there is unacceptable content on some blogspot subdomains.
Apparently, there is growing use of deep packet inspection, which can be used to block VPNs – one means of otherwise circumventing the Golden Shield. Some VPN software requires particular ports, which can be blocked. Many proxy servers are blocked. There is an ‘arms race’ with Tor, too, where China is blocking Tor relays and examining how Tor use shows in network traffic.
The government uses people and systems to create and filter posts and comments that favour the government’s positions and report posts and comments that oppose the government, deliberately attempting to alter the online environment in favour of the government – promoting positive views and repressing, monitoring and reporting negative views, shifting not only the particular views but also the perception of the prevalence of those views. Pro-government propaganda is disguised as posted by private voices. Internet providers, whether ISPs, ICPs or cybercafes, attempt to mitigate the risks of coming to the attention of the state and employ people and systems to monitor and moderate content, too. Users who persist in posting offending content face punishment ranging from being banned from the particular site, being banned from using the internet, to arrest and imprisonment.
China also censors and blocks by keywords. You can circumvent that by using homophones. But again that doesn’t mean we can be sanguine about keyword blocking. It increases the ‘cost’ of posting the content and reduces the likelihood of someone understanding the meaning.
So there are informal constraints (real name registrants self-censoring, internet users’ fear of testing the limits, internet providers erring on the side of caution and censoring and blocking, volunteer citizens monitoring, moderating, reporting and altering perceptions) as well as formal constraints (laws, regulations and state-deployed mechanisms). There is a shift of the burden of censorship and perception control from the state to private actors. There is a complex set of overlapping formal and informal, state- and private- mechanisms.