All eyes on China

The Olympic Games have kicked off in China, and as the world turns its attention to Beijing, its not just the sport that has come into focus

Tags: CensorshipChinaCyber crime
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By  Mark Sutton Published  August 10, 2008

The Olympic Games have kicked off in China, and as the world turns its attention to Beijing, its not just the sport that has come into focus. Along with China's infamous pollution and political repression, its policies towards online freedom have also been put under the microscope.

At the weekend I was listening to the Guardian's excellent Tech Weekly podcast, which was discussing the so-called Great Firewall of China and many of the issues around the web in country. The Olympics are seen by some as a chance to nudge China towards more openness, and by others as an opportunity to expose the lack of freedom in the online world in the country.

What struck me most about what was being said however, was how many parallels there are with what happens in China as there are with what goes on in the Middle East, and how much less global concern there seems to be about abuses of freedom in this part of the world.

Campaigners are hailing the fact that the Chinese authorities have unblocked many sites that were previously restricted. The BBC's Chinese language site, Wikipedia and numerous information sources about the Tiananmen Square protests have been unblocked, as part of promises by the authorities to the International Olympic Committee that it would allow free reporting during the Olympics. And yet, the hows and whys of what's blocked and what isn't, remain a mystery.

Some sites have been freshly blocked, while others that have been blocked for a long time have suddenly been opened. The reporters in China also say that where some domains are now unblocked, there seems to be more filtering of content to remove reports or web pages on certain issues.

On the podcast, the Guardian's Tania Brannigan comments: "It is really very unclear how they reach the decision [to unblock sites]; and therefore its really quite unclear how it will change after the Olympics."

Sound familiar? The UAE TRA may have promised that 1,000 previously blocked sites will be opened up once it has completed its review, but any more details than that are scarce. We can hope for clear policies once the TRA completes its review, but that doesn't mean that Etisalat will stop relying on automated filtering and blocking by third party software, or that the two telcos will have a single coherent approach.

Interestingly enough, one of the usual comments among Chinese web users is that anyone who wants to get around the blocks can usually find out how - whereas in the UAE most links to proxy sites and anonymous servers seem to be blocked as well (and yes, every time we write about this people write back telling us how to get round the proxy, but we can't print the responses as that would be against the law... )

There are more serious parallels between China and the Middle East. China has jailed bloggers in the past, as has Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Egypt has just arrested activists who were organizing through Facebook, and now comes the news that the Egyptian authorities may be trying to force cybercafes to hand over personal details of their customers.

The adoption of online tools for political means, and the repression of activists that do so, are becoming common all over the world, but it does seem that China is drawing all the attention.

German hacker group the Chaos Computer Club is offering media and athletes attending the Olympics 'Freedom Sticks' - USB drives pre-loaded with software to bypass Chinese blocking proxies. Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! are drawing up a policy on how they will operate under regimes which block the Internet (while the policy is supposed to be general, all of the impetus behind it is clearly focused on China).

In the Middle East, the Wikimedia Foundation -  surely a bastion of free speech values - chose to hold its annual conference in Egypt this year, despite protests from its own members about the Egyptian authorities.

Of course, the Olympics are a global spectacle that provide a worldwide platform for all sorts of concerned parties to air their own particular messages. As a political opportunity, it is without parallel. China also has by far and away the largest population of Internet users worldwide, with 253 million users online at the end of June, surpassing the US's 223 million. But let's hope that the pressure that's being brought to bear on China now will have a long term effect not just in that country, but in all countries that repress online freedom.

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