The Great Firewall of China is the Chinese government’s massive censorship network that monitors flow of information on the internet and filters out anything that goes against the state’s set regulations including speech, search, exchange of information etc. The word itself is a portmanteau of firewall and the Great Wall of China. It is widely believed that the term was coined in a Wired magazine piece back in 1997.
The Great Firewall is a surveillance project which is officially under the Chinese government’s Golden Shield Project which is described as the “national network-security fundamental constructional project by the e-government of the People’s Republic of China”. The Golden Shield Project manages the Bureau of Public Information and Network Supervision.
The Great Firewall is used to regulate the Internet in China domestically. The entire system is elaborate and works to allow the Communist Party of China maximum control over the Internet and the larger flow of information in the country. The laws surrounding this censorship project criminalise specific speech items and activities. It blocks access to certain websites, apps and digital services and filters out specific keywords from search that originates from mainland China. It also requires that international online service provides must save and store the information related to Chinese customers within China and it also slows down cross-border Internet traffic.
Evolution of Chinese Internet surveillance and censorship network
China formed its first Internet/Computer crime laws in 1997. That year, the sole legislative body in China–the National People’s Congress–cleared revised criminal law 1997 also called CL97. This law criminalised cyber crimes and then was heralded as a pathbreaking initiative in the country. Some critics and judges said that the law was ineffective and unenforceable. However, the NPC left it flexible so that it could be exploited for its highly interpretative nature.
In 2016, the Chinese government passed the Internet Security Law of the People’s Republic of China 2016.
Article 1 of the law says “This law is formulated so as to ensure network security, to safeguard cyberspace sovereignty, national security and the societal public interest, to protect the lawful rights and interests of citizens, legal persons and other organizations, and to promote the healthy development of economic and social informatization.”
Article 5 of the law reads: “The State takes measures for monitoring, preventing, and handling network security risks and threats arising both within and without the mainland territory of the People’s Republic of China, protects critical information infrastructure against attacks, intrusions, interference and destruction; and pushes unlawful and criminal network activities in accordance with law, preserving cyberspace security and order.”
While Article 6 lays down need for public participation in the monitoring process. “The State advocates sincere, honest, healthy and civilized network conduct; promoting dissemination of the core socialist values, adopting measures to raise the entire society’s awareness and level of network security, and forming a good environment for the entire society to jointly participate in advancing network security,” the article 6 of the law read.
The Chinese government cites these parts of the law among others to block any ISP, gateway connection or any kind of access on the internet in China. The surveillance network’s infrastructure was built decades earlier with the help of mostly American equipment from network companies like Cisco system. The network is operated from huge buildings now run by civilian workers supervised by the Chinese National Police Force and the Public Security Bureau. The surveillance network monitors and reads information on domestic and international websites, search, email, IM chat apps etc. When the network detects any message out of place, PSB officials are sent to investigate and make arrests.
Search terms like democracy, Tianenment Square massacre etc are filtered from search and return error messages. The kind of censorship is also seen on international media. When the New York Times published a Pulitzer-prize winning article on family finances of outgoing president Wen Jiabao in 2012, after few days, the New York Times account on the Chinese social media platform Sina Weibo was deleted and the website was blocked too.
The censorship applies to apps too. For instance, China has blocked Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Telegram, sporadic bans on WhatsApp are seen, Google, YouTube, Bing etc. China has its own substitute platforms which are quite popular. The micro-blogging website Sina Weibo, substitute for Twitter, has a user base of over 340 million users. All the information is monitored, censored or deleted when deemed fit and ‘offenders’ are punished.