Many have heard of the Great Wall of China, an ancient barrier meant to protect China from invaders, but not as many westerners have heard of the “Great Firewall” of China. The Golden Shield Project, part of which is known informally as the Great Firewall, is the mechanism by which the government of China censors the internet, controlling which sites are accessible from within China, and imposing rules on sites and companies operating within Chinese cyberspace. With hundreds of millions of internet users, the Great Firewall represents a remarkable technical achievement of state-sponsored surveillance and censorship.
Work on the Golden Shield Project began in the late nineties, and continues to the present time, with frequent updates, policy changes, and crackdowns on attempts to circumvent the censorship. What does censorship look like in China? Well, for one thing, websites popular with the rest of the world including Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia, Google, and news sites like The New York Times and Bloomberg are either completely blocked or only intermittently allowed. Web searches that include words or phrases deemed “inappropriate” by the government are also blocked. These can include things like pornography or searches related to crimes, but also words like democracy or free speech.
Censorship efforts generally fall in line with prevailing political winds of China’s ruling Communist Party. Google operated in China until 2010, when due to pressure from the Chinese government to heavily censor search results, when it decided to pull out of mainland China and operate only in Hong Kong, which does not have censored search results. The organization Reporters Without Borders has ranked China 176 out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index in 2016, in large part due to the censorship of China’s internet and punishment of journalists and advocates who call for greater freedoms. However, Google has been negotiating with the Chinese government to bring back Google China. The New York Times published an article recently detailing the struggle that journalists experience, and the backlash that news outlets can suffer when articles critical of the Chinese government are published.
The Great Firewall serves as equal parts technological marvel and cautionary tale, and has proven to be remarkably effective at shaping the economic and social structure of how Chinese citizens interact with the world in cyberspace. Even so, the wall shows signs of cracking: a high-level official has proposed a measure to reduce the amount of censorship in order to improve speeds and spur innovation. Time will tell if this firewall falls like the Berlin wall did almost 30 years ago, unifying east and west with uncensored access to information.