THE GREAT FIREWALL of China is crumbling under the weight of the nation's 45 million Internet users. Observers say Beijing's elaborate system of blocking software, human monitoring and increasingly restrictive laws has had a hard time keeping up with the exponential growth in online traffic.
"It is fairly simple for an Internet user with a modicum of technical knowledge to access blocked sites," said Steve Yap, a director with NFO WorldGroup's Hong Kong office.
China has tried to block unwanted information from getting into the country and state secrets from getting out since the Internet became commercially available to individuals in 1995. Along with pornography and other material deemed to be obscene or illegal, China attempts to block access to sensitive political topics such as domestic democracy movements, Tibet or Taiwan independence and Falun Gong. Censors also target news organisations, including CNN, the BBC and the online editions of many newspapers. The South China Morning Post Web site, SCMP.com, has frequently been inaccessible from the mainland, especially when controversial topics are featured.
There appears to be little consistency on exactly what is banned. The New York Times can be viewed (after the newspaper's editor last year appealed directly to President Jiang Zemin) but seemingly benign sites dealing with parenting or technology cannot. Users report that sites become accessible and then are blocked again without any apparent reason. Some say there is also varying degrees of censorship depending on where the information is being accessed. Academics or people staying in hotels frequented by tourists, for example, appear to have less difficulty looking at foreign news sites than a person using an Internet cafe.
What is clear is that in recent months there has been an increased push for control. Internet service providers have been encouraged to enter into pacts that require them to self-censor material that is deemed to be "harmful to national security and social stability" or illegal. Internet cafes have been forced to install software on their computers that can reportedly prevent access to up to 500,000 foreign Web sites, as well as tell police when customers try to view banned material.
Another tactic used is flooding the Internet with politically acceptable Chinese language
content. The government alone has put up several thousand Web sites.
There have been reports of domain names used by banned groups - such as Human Rights in China -
being redirected to sites that instead contain government information.