The Great Firewall of China

When China’s wall is mentioned, the first thing to spring to mind is the Great Wall of China, made of regular bricks and mortar. There is, however, another wall that is predominately unique to China: its firewall.

China has extremely strict censorship, in effect to block its citizens accessing certain websites, including Google. Earlier this year though, the restrictions were circumnavigated by Chinese internet users, and it raises the question of whether China will decide to alleviate the restrictions or hire a new security consultant to ensure such a breach doesn’t happen again in the future.

It isn’t yet known how the Great Firewall of China was breached, during which time President Obama’s official Google+ page was heavily spammed, with visitors posting comments of dissent, asking for green cards, or pleading for freedom, with comments literally saying “free us” and one going so far as to say “Mr President. Please pay more attention to Chinese civil rights, I hope that you will win the coming election.”

Such a breach would have served as a genuine nightmare for whatever infrastructure manager was on duty, but apparently all is back to the normal restrictions now.

Theories are abound regarding how the breach happened. Some reports suggest it was an internal glitch in the censorship system, while others believe that it was from browsing on mobile devices that were overlooked by the censors. In any event, it doesn’t appear Google did anything to make the site available and so the search giant can’t be held accountable for the issue.

For a country that imposes strict regulations on its citizens, it would come as no surprise that the comments left for Obama were not viewed favourably. Hong Lei, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, said that Chinese citizens should express themselves in accordance with the law of China – although he refused to answer whether or not criticising the government on the internet was against the law. The editor in chief of Danwei.com, Jeremy Goldkorn, took the comments another way by saying that the majority of comments were ironic or simple jokes. While this may be true, one can’t help but wonder why so many people would descend on the page of the world’s most powerful man to leave humorous comments that lack any overt humour. Rather, the comments do seem to be quite genuine.

Whether they were genuine or not, the incident has brought to the fore the debate of freedoms, civil rights and censorship of the internet. With recent suggestions to clamp down on how we use the internet, such as SOPA, the debate now returns to whether China should open it up.

From a user’s perspective, the use of the internet should not be restricted; it is a vast database that can help us in infinite ways, from teaching us how to do things to learning new subjects or starting a new career. China is not stopping its citizens from accessing the internet in its entirety, but it is severely crippling the ways in which it can be used. And the reasons – not wanting the citizens to have free reign – tend to smack of overt paranoia on the government’s behalf.

If the censorship was going to be lifted, the chances are quite high that this latest turn of events may just be the final nail in the coffin of internet freedom in China. Tongue-in-cheek though they perhaps may have been, the comments on Obama’s Google+ page may just warn the Chinese government that its citizens are not happy, and given half a chance to communicate so openly and freely with the rest of the online world, there could be some serious trouble brewing.