NOTE: This article is an archived copy for portfolio purposes only, and may refer to obsolete products or technologies. Old articles are not maintained for continued relevance and accuracy.
March 18, 1996

The Good Ol' Days Are Gone

There was a time not so long ago when we all thought the Internet would become the great social equalizer. Every person on the planet would be given a voice, whether they lived in a democracy or dictatorship. This theory was developed and nurtured during some of the most notable upheavals like Tiennamen Square, Chechnya, and Iraq. E-mail and other news poured out of the regions, even while the mainstream press was blocked by the official government.

Well, no more. China and Singapore have both recently started screening Internet traffic, and more countries are sure to follow. China has ordered all Internet users to register with the government, and has put a temporary moratorium on new Internet domains and addresses, mandating that all connections and services must go through the government. Only marginally less heavy-handed, Singapore has requested that all of the nation's Internet service providers filter out any materials related to sex, religion or politics, but has stated that they will not interfere with personal, private communications. My prediction is that Iraq, Iran, and other countries of low tolerance will soon enact similar laws.

And what's to stop them? The technology surely allows it. For example, China's Internet connectivity has historically consisted of just two 64k circuits, having only recently been bumped to two circuits totaling a whopping 256k. All Internet connectivity in or out of any .CN domain is monitored by the central authorities. If you think I'm kidding try it yourself. Packets get lost in cyberspace.

E-mail, news, and all sorts of other traffic can and are being effectively blocked using conventional, off-the-shelf firewalls. Incoming traffic must go through the internal systems before being further distributed. Outbound traffic follows the same path.

Granted, China's 256k connection pales to the mesh topology that we have in the States and Western Europe, and should their network connectivity services be enhanced, it would be more difficult for this model to be maintained. However, you must remember that it's a topology that supports filtering and monitoring, so China is likely to continue using it, even if they increase the speeds or the number of connection points.

Somebody always brings up alternative means of connection at this point. And I always have to ask "What alternatives?" China doesn't have a free-market economy; there aren't dozens of ISPs and IAPs servicing the market. You get Internet connectivity from the state-run telephone company, or you don't get it.

As for cellular or long-distance connections to companies outside of China, that's a hard push in my opinion. Assuming you could afford such an extravagance, how would you pay for the services? What would happen when the bill came? If your mail or expenses were being monitored, you'd have a hard time explaining that invoice.

What about satellite connections? Again, assuming you could even afford a satellite dish in China, how would you get it? What would be the reasons you gave when you filled out the permit requesting it? Sneaking a dish into the country is one thing, but putting it on your rooftop in downtown Beijing is another. They tend to get noticed.

You see, it's not just that the technology allows the censorship, but that the political infrastructure of the society allows it as well. Where there are no technical ways to prevent something, there are laws that allow the prevention of it, either explicitly or indirectly.

The same is true in America and Western Europe, where the supposedly liberal laws allow for greater levels of personal freedom. However, these same laws also allow for arrests and seizures of equipment when laws are violated. Take for example the recent FTC actions against nine firms involved in deceptive marketing practices on the Internet. These folks were clearly violating consumer protection laws, and the FTC did the right thing by taking them down. So in this case, the regulatory affects are positive (at least in our opinion).

But it's still regulation, and in that regard it is no different from what's happening in other parts of the world. When you break the law (no matter what you think of that law), you pay the consequences. This applies to Beijing and New York equally.

So, in the end the question is not one of technology, but one of enforceability. Like most laws, they are only enforceable on a percentage basis. Will China be able to filter and control the content? Yes, up to a point, and then cryptography and other technologies will take over. At that point, the laws kick in, and a few people will be given a very difficult time. Of course it's not 100% stoppable (no more than false advertising domestically is), but it is enforceable, and that may be enough.

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Copyright © 2010-2011 Eric A. Hall.
Portions copyright © 1996 Eric A. Hall.