Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Expansion of China's Great Firewall: Why the Selective Impact?

In a post about why the recent expansion of China's Great Firewall occurred when it did I said I would follow up with my thoughts on another question: Why were some services which are openly distributed through Chinese web sites either spared or able to adjust without users noticing problems?

As I wrote in a post about who is impacted by the recent expansion of China's Great Firewall:
"If China desires to reduce the circumvention of the Great Firewall by Chinese users, one may expect that such services would be the main target for any disruption as their users are most likely predominantly Chinese.  And it would be curious if such services, often very cheap or free, could adjust without their users' awareness when users of services more familiar to most Westerners were painfully aware of problems."

I'll presume that the apparent sparing of some services wasn't due to them being able to adapt unnoticed to an unexpected event while numerous non-China based services could not.  I'll highlight two of the possible answers for my question as I think they have particularly important ramifications if true.

1.  As I wrote earlier (see here), the expansion of the Great Firewall may not have been about a need for closing any holes but was instead a show of might.  Hillary Clinton's statement that the US would aid research to help people develop and use technologies to get around censorship such as the Great Firewall may have "provoked" China to respond by showing it could impact such technologies if it desired.  In this case, China may not have cared about impairing the technologies most used by Chinese citizens, but instead those most likely to catch the attention of the United States -- ones used by many foreigners in China and delivered by US companies.  Based on its previous actions, it would not be at all surprising for China to respond in such a way without admitting its motives publicly.

2.  The cheap/free services distributed in China are perceived by many Chinese as being illegal since they help circumnavigate the Great Firewall.  This causes many Chinese users to believe the services are "safe" from government surveillance even though some of the services have unclear origins.  However, some of these services may in fact be directly or indirectly supported by the Chinese Government.  The Chinese Government knows there will be people trying to circumvent the Great Firewall.  It would be advantageous to the Chinese Government that people doing so use tools that enable continued surveillance.  For a particularly eyebrow-raising potential example, there is a widely distributed "copycat" service in China using the name Witopia -- which is in fact the name of a US-based company offering VPN services.  Some have claimed that the copycat service doesn't actually encrypt its data -- a significant failure for something apparently selling itself as a VPN.  Regardless of how they do it, some tools may be exempt from an expansion of the Great Firewall because they allow (deliberately or not) the Chinese Government a degree of monitoring not possible when other tools are used.  That China might allow the Great Firewall to be porous in this way would be consistent with how it has been implemented in the past (see here for an article about how the Great Firewall works by James Fallows).

To summarize, the Great Firewall's expansion may have been more about displaying it's potential power than a desire to further clamp down on the ability to get through it.  And regardless of the motivations, it may have been done in a way to avoid disrupting services that allow surveillance and to further funnel people to those services.  This and my previous posts help show that there is much to consider when evaluating any change in the Great Firewall's behavior.

Finally, I should add that in China I am currently able to freely access the Internet by using an appropriately adjusted VPN.  I wouldn't be entirely surprised if I remain able to do so for the near future without any further adjustments.  It's possible the Chinese Government has already achieved its relevant goals for now.

Again, we'll see...

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