China has always had a tumultuous relationship with the Internet. As a nation struggling consistently with questions of human rights, the combination of the instantaneous power and access that the Internet grants and the sheer size of its population means that China has struggled hard to keep the Internet firmly under its control. China had one of its longest-running battles with Google, which fought to avoid having its search results censored within the nation. A very recent episode brought this struggle back into the headlines of American newspapers.

In the US, Congress is currently debating its way through two bills: the PROTECT IP Bill, in the Senate, and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House of Representatives. If successful, these acts would allow for the United States government to block access to sites hosting pirated content. Former Senator Chris Dodd cited the success of the Chinese government in restricting Google results as evidence that such a move could be implemented. Dodd, as current chairman of the MPAA (an organization directly threatened by piracy), stated that he saw no distinction between these proposed bills and the US government’s current intervention in sites hosting criminal content, like child pornography. [1] Thus, even though Dodd meant his comparison to China favorably, critics have jumped on it as an illustration of just how much of a danger it would be for the US government to enact such legislation. Some even see the acts as going beyond the scope of the Great Firewall of China. After all, China was only censoring results for its own citizens. However, the two current acts, which propose DNS filtering, would affect the Internet for users globally. [2] Thus, critics warn that this move would transform the Internet in America from “a system that punishes illegal actors but favors openness, innovation, and free expression to a closed system that prefers distributed methods of control in the service of powerful interests.” [3]

That said, what are these powerful interests that led China to clamp down so drastically on its citizens’ access to the Internet? It seems that the media’s favorite word for describing China is “transitioning”, an apt choice as it still fights through centuries of fiercely-held traditions and self-governance combining with the Western influences exerted on it more recently. Chinese law, too, is a mish-mash that highlights just how uneasy the transition has been. Supposedly governed by rule of law, Chinese courts still suffer the illegitimacy that comes with rampant bribery and dubiously qualified judges. [4] These judges are only one part of the system used to oversee Chinese citizens’ use of the Internet.

China has only 3 points where fiber optic cables enter the country, carrying the majority of Internet communication: in the north, near Beijing, in the east, near Shanghai, and in the south, near Hong Kong. [5] Because of this, China can monitor quite literally every packet of information that enters the country via the Internet. The famed Great Firewall is but one avenue of defense against citizens accessing information the government deems unsuitable; the entire system is referred to as the Golden Shield Project. If a user is conducting searches the government has deemed inappropriate, there are multiple places the firewall can intervene to prevent the user from accessing the information. The DNS address of a particular website can be blocked, the connection can be reset, or the site can be prevented from loading using delaying commands. [6]

What sorts of searches could elicit such responses? Words such as “democracy”, “political dissident”, and “student federation” will all trigger one of the techniques mentioned above to prevent you from getting to your webpage. Besides restricting knowledge about these political concepts, the government also sought to be a moral authority, as it also blacklisted searches on “sexual massage” and “pornography”.[7] Finally, the Chinese government attempted to revise its history, blacklisting searches for various massacres and journalists, and most famously, any mention of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Even searching for the date the massacre occurred on, June 4th, is inaccessible to citizens. One of the most enduring photos is of “Tank Man”, a lone protestor blocking the path of a column of tanks. Instantly recognizable throughout the world, this image was blocked on image search, and Chinese citizens expressed genuine bafflement when they first encountered it. [8] The Chinese government is literally shaping its citizens’ images of history.

One newer strategy that China is implementing for this goal is actually monitoring frequently-changing websites for content. Sources of news get exceptionally close scrutiny. A news outlet’s website may be readily accessible for years, but if it should happen to report negatively on problems in Tibet, the page could be taken down as soon as the new story is noted. There’s a term for this in psychology: variable reinforcement, when there is no discernable pattern to how often you are rewarded with the completion of a task. This is hugely significant for discussing the effect that censorship has on the citizens of a country.

The Google chapter of the story ended in March 2010, when Google announced that it was withdrawing from China. [9] Its former domain, google.cn, would be redirecting all searches to google.com.hk, servers based in Hong Kong, which is censored far more leniently thanks to its unique relationship as a special administrative region within China. This came after a long, conflicted relationship, during which Google initially acquiesced to Chinese demands for censorship, was taken down for an entire day via faulty DNS communication[10], and had its servers hacked for information on human rights activists, purportedly by forces within the government. [11]

Google may seem now like a mere footnote in the history of the Chinese Internet – though searches can still be conducted using the server in Hong Kong, it is getting trounced roundly by native competitor Baidu. And, as the Atlantic article points out, the Great Firewall of China is easily overcome. The original Great Wall was an imperfect defense; after all, the wall eventually ended on either side. The Great Firewall can be circumvented by using proxies or VPNs, both readily accessible to Chinese citizens, though VPNs are relatively expensive. [12]

However, the Great Wall managed to nonetheless be effective because it served as resistance against the Mongols, guarding the most crucial parts of China. It didn’t need to encompass all of China to protect it; it merely needed to slow China’s opponents down. The Great Firewall is oddly pragmatic, in the same way. The Internet is a vast, sprawling place, and the Chinese government knows that complete control over it for all of its citizens would be impossible. However, the resistance its techniques offer is enough to frustrate and slow down some citizens who would otherwise turn to dissent. The Great Firewall operates using the idea of variable reinforcement: if you never know for sure whether you will be able to access a certain piece of online information or not, your mental schema of the world becomes that much shakier. Knowledge that should be taken for granted is no longer certain at all.

This, ultimately, is the danger of the legacy left by Google’s struggle in China. And though China is slowly opening up (many of the terms blacklisted on Google are allowed now on Baidu), it serves as an interesting counterpoint to the discussions in the United States about PROTECT IP and SOPA. These acts would allow the US government to decide to restrict access to sites with copyrighted material; the Great Firewall prevented Chinese citizens from accessing sites with viewpoints contrary to the official Chinese party line. These are obviously very different situations, but the United States is definitely currently poised on the brink of a slippery slope. The problem isn’t the content being blocked; rather, it’s the idea that the government should have the ability at all to decide what its citizens can see about the world.