Stanley's blog

The China Daily of 15 August reported that the US is testing a new technology called ‘Feed over Email’ (FOE) that enables web users in countries with internet censorship to bypass the blocks put in place. This could soon give the country’s 300 million web users another way to access information blocked by the Chinese government’s filters.

The article says that the technology, which should be available by the end of this year, would pose another challenge to Beijing, which has been struggling to keep improper and violent materials, including pornography, away from its Internet users.

Earlier, Chinese officials announced they had abandoned
plans to ensure that every computer sold in the country had the
controversial Green Dam content-filtering software installed.

The US government wants to send a message to countries applying
strict control over the Internet that people have the right to
access any information they want, that is why FOE is developed by
the US government, said Professor Pan Wei of Peking University.

“China should be confident enough to be transparent and take
criticism. It’s about time China loosened its control over the
Internet,” said. “It actually damages China’s international image.”

The government had already been losing its battle in monitoring the Net, regardless of the success of the new US technology, said HuYong, a founding director for China New Media Communication Association.

“People could always find ways to bypass the system as technology develops…Chinese netizens have been using proxy servers to access the information blocked by the government for a long time, FOE is just a more convenient tool,” Hu said.

Apparently, Internet users would need to open an email account with a company based outside of their own country, such as Yahoo! or Google’s Gmail, to overcome one of the first initial censorship hurdles.

Yahoo and Google will no doubt be influenced as to whether to allow the circumvention here. But other companies will presumably be available.

The Internet is an invaluable information tool, if used with care. We in the West believe in freedom of information, in fact freedom to supply both accurate and inaccurate information. The Internet can also be used to destabilise a country and Beijing’s dilemma is understandable.

While we may think that freedom of information is in China’s long term interests, Chinese politicians and officials have grown up in a radically different tradition and political culture, and worry that unrestricted access to the Internet will in the short term facilitate internal and external elements fomenting trouble, particularly in the area of ethnic tensions; and in the long term mount a challenge to the Party and Chinese stability.

A government policy to slow down unlimited access is understandable (even though it may not be acceptable in the West). However, it is essential the authorities appreciate that the process can only be slowed down. Otherwise, they will not learn how effectively to counteract false information. While ‘independent’ bloggers are being used to express government opinions, this will not alone cope with false information.

They will also increase their knowledge in how to exploit modern communications technology to their advantage. I remain of the opinion that the Chinese media can assist the implementation and enforcement of Beijing’s policies. It has to be recognised that risks are involved, but so are there risks from the non-transparency frequently imposed over consumer and environmental disasters. Nothing is risk-free and a policy of ‘zero tolerance for risk’ is itself a risk.

The Chinese leadership has the ability to devise a system whereby these incidents can be reported but the media punished for inaccurate reporting. It’s not for me to judge, but there seems to be an increasing public resistance to these health incidents, and the Government and Party are more likely to retain public confidence by transparency and action, than by concealment.

While Western interests continue to promote freedom of information, it is in no-one’s interests that the Internet be used to destabilise China.

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  1. Any of the Chinese people I know – and they are necessarily competent in English and therefore likely to have been well educated – have myriad ways of getting around Internet censorship already (proxy servers etc.).

    Foreign companies operating in major Chinese cities generally have permission to access the web via U.S. or other foreign servers.

    The upshot of this is that the educated upper echelons of society – the educated and business classes – are subject to differing levels of information freedom to the ordinary workers and ‘peasants’ (as the Chinese often say).

    This creates an extra digital divide on top of the obvious problem of poorer citizens not having Internet access at all.

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘1055386704 which is not a hashcash value.

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