US Congressional Panel Tackles China’s Great Firewall, Seeking a WTO Intervention


The US Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) held a new hearing in Washington yesterday to discuss the “human toll and trade impact” of China’s censorship of the web – aka it’s Great Firewall (GFW) system. It comes at a time when the US is asking the World Trade Organization (WTO) to press China for greater transparency in its GFW, which blocks a lot of foreign social media as well as general sites that contain views and material that Beijing authorities consider ‘sensitive’ or ‘inharmonious.’

The CECC hearing, chaired by Senator Sherrod Brown, featured five witnesses who talked of everything from trade laws to political dissent. One of them, Alex Li, is a former Chinese national whose father was imprisoned for views expressed online about the ruling Party. But first, Mr Brown said of the GFW in his opening remarks (I quote from written statements, not the video that’s embedded below):

CECC chair, Senator Sherrod Brown.

This policy benefits Chinese domestic companies at the expense of companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube who are completely blocked in China. Companies whose business models rely on openness and transparency – are forced to be an arm of the Chinese government or turn their backs on 1.3 billion customers […]

In the absence of meaningful competition, copycat versions of Twitter and Facebook flourish in China and raise hundreds of millions of dollars, ironically, on our capital markets. For instance, in May of this year, Renren, China’s version of “Facebook,” raised $743 million in an IPO listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

Hmmm… I don’t think “copycat” is entirely fair. By that principle, America’s own Henry Ford is a ‘copycat’ of Germany’s Karl Benz, who was making some fully functional cars that could travel over 60 miles a full eight years before Mr Ford even built his first car in 1896. As we like to say on PO, screw the idea – it’s the execution that matters. Also, remember that Renren (NYSE:RENN) was winning the social media battle before Facebook even got blocked.

Anyway, despite that not very convincing start, the CECC hearing then got deeper into the truly sinister Orwell-meets-Kafka world of China’s opaque censorship superstructure.

Imprisonments, and Flights to Freedom

The first witness was Alex Li who recounted how his father’s dissenting articles, which he posted online using the free proxy software Freegate, got found out. It paints a picture of the GFW being a tool of control, rather than of the claimed purpose of keeping the web “harmonious” (to use a key propaganda phrase). Alex said:

The reasoning behind the sentencing was that my father published four articles, which were viewed 1,532 times and received responses from over 25 people. The court stated my father was guilty of “inciting subversion of state power and overthrowing the socialist system.” First of all, my father posted his articles on foreign-operated websites. Without a proxy, people in China could not visit them. In 2005, few people knew of and made use of proxy software. Secondly, I could not imagine a nation with 1.4 billion people would be overthrown by an article with 1,532 views and responses from 25 people. So, I believe the agents were just using this as and excuse to persecute my father.

Oppression, Courtesy of Cisco

Google’s, as it appears in mainland China.

Two witnesses who experienced oppression at first-hand – Alex, as well as pastor John Zhang – singled out the American IT infrastructure company Cisco (NASDAQ:CSCO) for being complicit in building China’s GFW. Mr Zhang said:

The American company Cisco has played a disgraceful role […] According to reports, Cisco knowingly helped China’s Ministry of Public Security construct the “Golden Shield Project” [aka the GFW] as well as provided equipment, technology and training. The “Golden Shield Project” is a national surveillance network system that has a huge database and a sophisticated tracking network system. Thanks to network surveillance technologies provided by Cisco, the Ministry of Public Security can trace dissidents’ IP addresses and then track, harass and arrest them.

Trade Tactics

One approach for making this vast system a bit more transparent might be through the WTO, of which China is a member. Edward Black, president and CEO of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, explained that a carrot-and-stick tactic that’s allied to trade concerns might be able to iron out some of the unfairness in the web-blocking system:

Even though the WTO allows exceptions to its rules for matters of public morals and national security, it also requires that all regulations and restrictions be transparent, provide due process to affected parties, be the least restrictive as possible and apply equally to foreign and domestic players. As of today, China complies with none of these requirements.

Furthermore, the WTO has interpreted the public morals and national security exemptions reasonably narrowly in the past, so there is even some question as to the legitimacy of much of Chinese filtering at its very core under international trade law. Even if some filtering is found permissible under trade law, forcing China “to justify each and every blockage or filtering” may dampen its enthusiasm to impose such measures.

Mr Black then gave examples of how the GFW is manipulated by authorities to become a weapon with which to beat groups with which it disagrees. This has been especially true of Google (NASQAQ:GOOG), whose services have been repeatedly attacked – or used as a conduit for malicious behaviour – since it began to voice unease over working with the government in filtering content from its search engine (as all media companies who operate in China are forced to do).

Peeking Over the Great Firewall

Gil Kaplan, a lawyer, got down to specifics on what the US Congress would like to learn about the workings of the GFW:

With respect to China’s rules governing website blocking: Who is responsible for determining when a website should be blocked? What are the criteria for blocking access? Where are the guidelines published? Who does the actual blocking? How can a service supplier know if their website has been blocked? Are decisions to block appealable? Is the process used to prevent access the same or different for foreign and domestic content?

He added:

We hope and expect that the Government of China will answer these questions fully and promptly, fulfilling its obligations under the WTO to maintain an open internet and not discriminate against U.S. business.

The US’ “Grand Firewall”?

Actually, the US should know how China’s GFW works, since it is getting close to setting up a similar system of its own. The proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), also known as H.R.3261 and the E-PARASITE Act, was put before the US House last month. Built to both shut down “foreign rogue sites” and to combat piracy, it would technically work just like China’s/Cisco’s GFW in that it’d block a site within US soil by breaking its DNS.

If SOPA is passed and such a system is implemented, America’s authority on this issue will be close to zero, and the next time a senior Chinese official is challenged about its web-filtering, he’ll likely shrug his shoulders and say, “Well, you do it too!”

SOPA would also undermine the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ credo that supposedly underpins modern justice systems, so that preemptive blocks of a US website would be possible under this proposed act. US Representative Maxine Waters said that the law would allow “ISPs [to] unfairly block sites that don’t infringe” on copyright.

There has been a backlash by Silicon Valley big names against SOPA, such as Google and Facebook, who could well follow Yahoo (NASQAQ:YHOO) in walking away from the US Chamber of Commerce over this issue.

If SOPA is passed, I propose that America’s own Great Firewall be called the Grand Firewall, in homage to the Grand Canyon.

Here’s the CECC page (which is, unsurprisingly, blocked in China) relating to this hearing. Embedded below is the full videocast from the proceedings (or see it on Ustream), which stretches to 108 minutes:

(See also: Here’s a list of websites blocked in China)

(And yes, we're serious about ethics and transparency. More information here.)

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