The Great Firewall of China: when the web is not global

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Steven L. Ken

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To the singular question “What is the most important wall in China?”, Many would undoubtedly answer the GGreat Wall of China. World Heritage Site UNESCO and one of the seven wonders of the world, it is certainly a very famous wall, but not the most important one. The right answer to the question is in fact the Great Firewall, the virtual barrier that separates theChinese internet from that of the rest of the world.

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The Great Firewall around China

"Great Firewall" is a term coined by Wired in 1997. On that occasion the newspaper was talking about the censorship and surveillance project Golden Shield Project, but now the expression identifies the whole machine tecnologica e bureaucratic which works on many levels to find, control and block the various content available to Chinese users. In practice this translates into a huge filter that prevents a whole series of access from within the country sitescontent available in the rest of the world. Facebook, Twitter, Google, Youtube: these and many other platforms are in fact unachievable sailing from China.

Severin.stalder .'s photo

But all this did not lead to an "impoverished" internet, but to a parallel internet, with almost 700 million users: for every Western service and platform, in fact, there is a Chinese counterpart, with server in Cina and therefore available to the government. WeChat as a messaging application, Weibo come social, Baidu for searches instead of GoogleAlibaba for online purchases: having a large user base and little or no international competition, some of these platforms have become among the largest not only in China, but also in the world.

Bypass the Firewall

Despite the pervasiveness of the government filter, controls and censorship, getting around this system is currently relatively simple. Often it is enough to have a VPN, a few dollars a month, to disguise your own IP address and access all otherwise prohibited sites.

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The government is tolerant of this type of "scam" for two reasons: the first is that many companies and businesses need a way to access the global network and stay competitive on a commercial level. The second is that it is still a way little used by the average citizen.

The fact that every aspect of the Internet is covered by an equivalent Chinese service, and that government censorship is careful e targeted rather than overtly oppressive, it means that most citizens make no particular effort to get around the Great Firewall. Also thanks to the propaganda regime, for many people the presence of digital platforms inside China is more than enough for everyday life, and it is not easy to realize how much some topics have been censored or clouded by the party's narrative.

No light at the end of the tunnel

The fact that VPNs work to bypass blocking is therefore a known thing, and the government can still decide, as has happened in the past, to block certain VPN protocols or arrest journalists and activists who have used this technology to communicate freely with the outside world.

The fact that China is increasingly commercially linked to the rest of the world is not even leading to a lightening of this blockade, on the contrary: Beijing it does not try to hide its control over the network, justifying it as a simple means of maintaining order and national security. Indeed, for foreign companies wishing to operate in China, the state requires some concessions in terms of positioning of servers within the country and censorship of certain services or applications.

Therefore, there do not seem to be any positive changes on the horizon freedom of speech and information in China. For the moment we can only be a little more aware of the fact that the web as we know it is a reality that is far from obvious.

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