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‘The Great Firewall of China’. Impenetrable, all-encompassing and unassailable, denying both freedom of speech and freedom of information. It seems almost inappropriate that an instrument of such oppressive social apparatus should be so frivolously nicknamed.

The nickname – a combination of China’s architectural marvel and the technical term for internet restriction – immediately signifies an impassable construction, guarding against invasion. It furthermore signifies a tangible barrier between appropriate and illicit, offering an absolute blockade between the two. Like the Great Wall itself, this grandest of firewalls seems built for battle.

Who nicknamed it thus? Not China, of course. The nickname is of Western origin. Whilst such a name jibes at, or even critiques the system, ‘The Great Firewall of China’ deflects attention from the project’s true genius; it’s ability to instigate self-censorship.

80% of Chinese residents surveyed in a recent poll agreed that the internet should be controlled. 85% believed this control should be levied by the government. (1)

Although ignorance of banned content certainly accounts for some of this support – why, for example, would you be interested in visiting a website you had never heard of? – it does not provide the reason for such overwhelming support. Facebook, for example, is widely known about by many Chinese. From personal experience, visiting the website (using a filter-bypass proxy) usually prompts onlookers to comment “That website is not allowed here”, rather than the expected indifference of ignorance. Such comments support the system, despite knowledge of what it occludes.

Internet censorship in China, then, doesn’t simply blockade the masses behind an impenetrable wall, but rather constructs a system whereby the masses keep themselves in check.

As I mentioned, Chinese censorship is not entirely impenetrable. Filter-bypass technology, known as VPN, is widely used by expats, international companies and universities. Yet despite general availability, such technology is rarely used by individual Chinese internet users. Perhaps people deem it unnecessary, but more likely they agree with the system which it would evade.

So what exactly does the filter block? The question, more accurately, should be ‘what exactly is the filter currently blocking?’, since it is ever dynamic and responsive. Websites are blocked and unblocked constantly. Notification is never proffered to publishers, nor are justifications discussed. Nowhere will you find a comprehensive list of illicit content, although from time to time inexhaustive details are published.

Guidelines are vague. Among other pointers “injuring the reputation of state organizations” is reportedly disallowed, although no further specifics are provided. (2)

To take an example, (this blog) is currently filtered. Without using a VPN you will not, at the moment, be able to read this in China. If I as the writer wished to reverse this, I would face just one option. Unable to ask for guidance or request unblocking directly, I would have to guess which parts of my blog were considered offensive, remove them, then wait in hope. I would therefore remove my post about Health & Safety, about Education and about Snow Shovellers, perhaps more. would then become self-censored in an effort to maximise audience. But it won’t.

Google faces a similar dilemma, albeit on a somewhat larger scale. Rather than falling foul of Chinese filters, Google self-censors their search results in China. Google argues that this will “meaningfully increase access to information for people in China”, despite falling short of their desire for free information. Importantly, the onus remains on Google to monitor content. “We are well aware that [the Chinese government] could at any time block access to our services. We will therefore be carefully monitoring access issues” say Google on their blog. (3)

By remaining undefined, flexible, inexplicable, Chinese internet filters force publishers desirous of a Chinese audience to meticulously self-censor. This appears less a ‘tangibly solid wall’ for web publishers to stay within – as ‘The Great Firewall of China implies’, more an ‘ever-present threat’ encouraging self-censorship.

So internet users remain happy to view only those sections of the internet deemed appropriate by their government, and publishers closely monitor their content in an effort to avoid the ghostly and inexplicable hand of censorship.

Chinese internet censorship possesses sophistication far greater than the nickname ‘The Great Firewall of China’ implies. Nicknaming validates its subject. Rather than re-name it and thereby repeat this mistake, I propose instead merely that the existing nickname be removed, leaving the policy exposed.

Internet censorship; the carefully managed suppression of free information.

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