Firewalls to Freedom

NEW YORK – Even the most cold-hearted realists would agree that the failure of Communist censorship played a role in the collapse of the Iron Curtain: Voice of America, the fax machine, rock ‘n’ roll, and the lure of Western capitalism helped to win over the people of the Soviet Bloc.

Today, similar hopes are often vested in the Internet, with high expectations that the wealth of online information might trigger the same kind of censorship failure in contemporary authoritarian states that we saw in Eastern Europe – and with the same results.

Such expectations are not entirely unfounded, because most Internet censorship systems are not perfect. But, while anybody with a little know-how can figure out how to circumvent, say, the “Great Firewall of China,” Internet filtering is only one layer of Chinese Internet censorship. It is also supplemented by an increasingly sophisticated system of manipulation and spin.

While the blocking of foreign Web sites was eased during the Olympics, deletion of politically sensitive content from Chinese blogs and chat rooms continued unabated throughout 2008. Now, a new crackdown against “vulgar” Internet content is being used to clean up politically sensitive writings – including discussion of Charter 08 , a pro-democracy treatise signed by thousands of Chinese who discovered it online. Contrary to Western expectations, most of this domestic Internet censorship is carried out not by the government's Internet police, but by Chinese Web hosting companies, which are being held legally responsible for what their users publish.