By Shaun Randol
The sophistication of China’s Great Firewall, the catchy name for the complex, internet censorship apparatus, is well known. Bloggers, journalists, regular Chinese citizens, and visitors passing through the country have all experienced frustration at not being able to read, view, or post so-called “sensitive” information on the web. By many measures, the Great Firewall has been a frustrating success. It appears now that by example and by proposal, China is exporting its internet censorship practices.
The latest move came on January 5, when China’s Ministry of Public Security announced a new initiative to crack down on websites with pornography. Google, Baidu, Sina.com, Sohu.com and other popular Chinese websites are targets of this new drive. There are fears, however, that this enterprise is a Trojan horse—that the real aim is to punish websites that, on occasion, publish material antithetical to the state’s political and economic agendas. For example, Tianya.cn, a very popular internet forum famous for exposing hoaxes and scandals (sometimes with political implications), is named as a target of this new program.
It is no surprise, then, that other countries have taken notice of the Great Firewall’s achievements and are instituting some of their own internet censorship protocols. Just across the Sea of Japan, Tokyo is also considering a plan to crackdown on websites featuring pornographic images of underage participants. Not that a restriction on underage sexual exploitation is bad news, mind you, but it opens the door for further online limitations.
In other countries, anti-pornography website laws are already on the books. In the United Kingdom, for instance, a complete ban on all “violent” porn will go into effect at the end of January. And multiple protests have occurred in Australia over proposed measures by the Communications Ministry to filter out child porn and other “unwanted” and “illegal material.” These measures, according to Stephen Conroy, minister for broadband, communications, and the digital economy, are part of a larger, $100 million dollar “cyber-safety plan” nicknamed the eerily familiar “Great Barrier.” Critics fear the filter will grow and tighten from the day it becomes law.
While there is no indication that the anti-pornography measures in the U.K., Japan, and Australia are gateways to further internet censorship, a door has been opened nonetheless. Perhaps they are waiting to gauge the success of China’s latest crackdown.
Meanwhile in Thailand, citing lèse majesté, 2,300 websites were recently blocked by the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (ICT); another 400 are on the chopping block. Thailand is still recovering from raucous political turmoil, resulting in the installment of Democrat Party member Abhisit Vejjajiva as head of government and Ranongruk Suwanchawee as the new minister of ICT. People’s Daily reports that ICT has spent 45 million baht ($128,600) to buy equipment for a “war room” to target inappropriate websites, and to prosecute violators with fines and imprisonment. Reportedly among the blocked websites are YouTube and The Economist, other sites with critical information on Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and websites based in places as far flung as Australia, Brazil, Canada, Czech Republic, the European Union, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Hungary, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Mexico, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Russia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, and Vietnam. (It’s a long list.)
The internet censorship domino effect is making waves in Vietnam too. According to the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union, Senior Vietnamese officials assert “blogs should serve as personal online diaries and not organs to disseminate opinions about politics, religion, and society.” Violators could face up to $12,000 in fines and up to 12 years in prison.
Pressure is being put on international companies as well. Time magazine reports the new law requires Internet companies with blogging platforms operating in Vietnam “to report to the Vietnamese government every six months—and to provide information about individual bloggers if requested.” Already, online activists like Huynh Nguyen Dao, Nguyen Bac Truyen, and Le Nguyen Sang have been arrested, while Nguyen Hoaong Hai was jailed for 30 months for using the web to organize anti-China demonstrations. The government has even created the Administration Agency for Radio, Television, and Electronics Information to regulate and monitor the internet.
“Right now the government is very afraid of the Internet,” says Nguyen Thanh Trang, president of the California-based Vietnam Human Rights Network. “The Internet is very powerful.”
Indeed. The race is on to see who will have more influence on the World Wide Web: online activists or governments seeking to restrict dissent.
Shaun Randol, a former intern at the World Policy Institute, is an independent research consultant and a research assistant at the India-China Institute at the New School.