Your dystopian future of tomorrow, served today.
One of the lessons learned from this latest wave of protests is that the nature of the beast is changing. With everyone so electronically interconnected, the right cause can go viral at a lethal pace. China is taking a preemptive approach (perhaps to squelch the growing pro-democratic movement) as the government begins to clamp down on information flow.
A Beijing entrepreneur, discussing restaurant choices with his fiancée over their cellphones last week, quoted Queen Gertrude’s response to Hamlet: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” The second time he said the word “protest,” her phone cut off.
He spoke English, but another caller, repeating the same phrase on Monday in Chinese over a different phone, was also cut off in midsentence.
These information attacks come from all angles. Over the weekend, Google accused China of messing with its Gmail services while deceptively trying to pin the blame on the search giant. Beijing of course refuted these “unacceptable accusations.”At last check, Gmail was 45 times slower than some competitors.
One service under attack are virtual private-network services, or V.P.N.’s, a popular way for the select few, usually expatriates; researchers; and business people, to bypass the Great Firewall of China. With Beijing trying to plug the holes, what’s left behind the walls is becoming increasingly censored.
Beyond these problems, anecdotal evidence suggests that the government’s computers, which intercept incoming data and compare it with an ever-changing list of banned keywords or Web sites, are shutting out more information. The motive is often obvious: For six months or more, the censors have prevented Google searches of the English word “freedom.”
But other terms or Web sites are suddenly or sporadically blocked for reasons no ordinary user can fathom. One Beijing technology consultant, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution against his company, said that for several days last week he could not visit the Web site for the Hong Kong Stock Exchange without a proxy. LinkedIn, a networking platform, was blocked for a day during the height of government concerns over Internet-based calls for protests in Chinese cities a few weeks ago, he said.
What’s most scary is how good China is getting at this. Many users have seemingly come to terms with their environment finding in house replacements for the blocked name brands.
Hu Yong, a media professor at Peking University, said government censors were constantly spotting and reacting to new perceived threats. “The technology is improving and the range of sensitive terms is expanding because the depth and breadth of things they must manage just keeps on growing,” Mr. Hu said.
China’s censorship machine has been operating ever more efficiently since mid-2008, and restrictions once viewed as temporary — like bans on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter — are now considered permanent. Government-friendly alternatives have sprung and developed a following.
Few analysts believe that the government will loosen controls any time soon, with events it considers politically sensitive swamping the calendar, including a turnover in the Communist Party’s top leadership next year.
It’s a unique tool for a country — especially one so economically well positioned — in a time when the power of information has never been greater.
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PHOTO: National Geographic