In the spring of 1989, student protesters occupied one of the largest squares in the world – Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China. The government cracked down on the pro-democracy movement and declared martial law. On June 4th it sent in the army to break up the protest. The death toll is unknown. The image of a young man standing alone, facing armoured tanks persists.
This year, on the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, army and police patrolled squares and transportation hubs throughout China, rounded up government critics and fortified its Great Firewall, adding another layer of censorship to the country’s Internet access.
I was in China when its State Internet Information Office jammed access to Gmail and Google. The 25th anniversary triggered the crackdown on an already highly censored Internet where YouTube, WordPress sites such as this one, Facebook, and Twitter, are permanently blocked.
In my hotel room I began to feel like Vladimir and Estragon in Beckett’s absurdist play – I vainly waited for Google: seconds turned into minutes, minutes into hours and then days. At first, before I realized Google was never going to load, I was hopeful. I thought the problem was with the hotel’s server. I shrugged it off as a temporary glitch. I kicked off my shoes and waited.
Problem loading page, Connection timed out, Server not found. Nothing connected, nothing loaded. Nothing happened. It was awful. I’m used to instant finger-tip access to world-wide information hubs but there I was, waiting for Google, unable to access my own Gmail account.
Then it hit me. In China over 30,000 censors troll the Internet and target subversive words and phrases. They look for potentially threatening terms, blacklist them and block the pages they appear on. Government censors police social networking sites; issue warnings when you’re on a suspicious site; jam your searches, and redirect you to unwanted sites.
Political sites and international news sites are blocked. I switched to Bing hoping to solve my problem. Sure enough, weather sites loaded quickly. But nothing else worked. It had momentarily escaped me that censors control your access to the Internet no matter what search engine you use. Cut off from my friends and colleagues, my world was silent. The void was boundless.
But I was not alone. Human ingenuity, like the Internet, knows no bounds. Chinese use Weibo (微博, the Chinese word for microblogging service), similar to Facebook and Twitter-like networking services. Chinese sites and servers self-monitor and self-censor to avoid being shut down by the government. Nonetheless, users succeed in getting information out when it is most needed. For a while, Mirror Google , which was originally created for fun, was useful to get around Chinese censors whose programs did not recognize the reversed words. Then there is Greatfire.org . Based in China, this activist Internet site monitors the censors, publishes banned information and lets people know what the government doesn’t want them to know.
Users also log on to proxies which allow them to connect to the Internet through an intermediary, so you can surf the Internet anonymously, like a carefree, kick-flipping skate boarder sailing over the Great Firewall, at least until the censors catch on. And then there’s FU Router, the mother of all proxies. The word on the web is that a Russian engineer created this penetrating undetectable stealth proxy that opens a wormhole to the rest of the world.
Waiting for Google laid bare one fact: on the Internet we are vulnerable to hackers, spammers, viruses and corporations, but we can also become victims of the ideological positions of governments around the world.
– Bob McLelland
On the topic:
From the Toronto Star:
Police need warrant to get Internet customers’ identities, Supreme Court rules
This article is part of our issue: Public Space/Public Art