Why Exaggerate?

China is engaging in plenty of Internet censorship, so why exaggerate? To me, it appears that there are two angles to most articles about Internet censorship in China one that underestimates China’s information control capabilties and one that exaggerates them. Inspired by Ben Walker‘s five misconceptions here is my (incomplete) list of “Internet censorship in China myths” that are continuing to appear in the media.

There’s the China can intercept and block everything myth:

Cisco gear could also help the government block ”subversive” Web pages, record ”suspicious” e-mails, or tap the Internet phone calls of a billion Chinese… Because Cisco’s gear handles every bit of data, they can track everything happening on the network.

This makes it sound like China can simultaeneously intercept and process VOIP data for a billion people!

There’s the Google search results myth.

When one of China’s Internet users – now more than 90 million strong – logs on to the popular search engine Google.com, everything appears normal. But search results for China-based web surfers are anything but. Websites without the government’s blessing – including the BBC, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Amnesty International – will not be found. And Chinese citizens won’t know the difference.

In fact this happens only with sites violating the DMCA in the USA (and possible some anti-Scientology sites), it has nothing to do with China. Google’s NEWS search does remove sites, that are blocked in China, from the results for people in China. Also, when people search in Google for a filtered keyword, that keyword appears in the URL path and China does filter by keyword in URL path. Also, the Google cache is blocked (by the same keyword blocking mechanism).

There’s the penalty box myth:

If a user searches for such topics, he or she is put in a virtual “penalty box” that temporarily locks up a computer’s browser. A second infraction triggers a longer lock-up.

What really happens is that connection between the user and the host is terminated ungracefully (by sending a RST packet) creating a ZeroWindow condition in which the host advertises a non-Zero window size. This can last for several minutes. If a website is accessible via another IP (e.g. Google uses many IP’s) then connections to those sites will be fine. There is no escalating “penalty box” effect. If you are intersted in how this is done, read this post.

There’s the bloggers must register myth:

The end of June marked the deadline for independent Chinese bloggers to register with the government.

Actually, it seems that registration is required for all websites hosted in China. It does not specifically target bloggers — even independent ones. If a blogger blogs at any bloghosting service or hosts a blog outside of China, registration is not required.

And last but not least there’s the 30,000 Internet police myth:

And no one denies persistent but unconfirmed reports that as many as 30,000 government employees toil at monitoring Internet traffic.

So interesting. I searched LexisNexis (and Googled) and collected articles that discussed Internet police in China and those that specifically stated the magic 30,000 number. The earliest reference I can find (if you have an earlier one, please send it to me) is an Ethan Gutmann article in The Weekly Standard 02/15/2002

Although it was widely rumored in Beijing that up to 30,000 state security employees were monitoring the Internet in that city alone, the monitoring was also laughed at.

Note that it states it is a rumor and that it was in Beijing, not all of China. Following that, on the 27th of February 2002, Amnesty International releases a report which states:

30,000 state security personnel are reportedly monitoring websites, chat rooms and private e-mail messages.

Rumored has turned in to reportedly, but at least there is a qualifier. But by the 25th of August 2002 the LA Times dropped the modifier:

More than 30,000 state security employees are currently conducting surveillance of Web sites, chat rooms and private e-mail messages–including those sent from home computers.

On November 7, 2002 the Washinton Post decides to leave out the “rumored” and “laughed at” part:

But Beijing, with 30,000 “Internet police,” has acted swiftly to clamp down on dissent through the ethers.

And so it begins. Rumor turned into fact. Some publications have and continue to include references to “rumored” or “estimated” along with the 30,000 figure. (An interesting sidenote is that publications continue to reference 30,000 (no change since 2002) despite a huge rise in China’s number of Internet users). However, the New York times has upped the number to 50,000 and dropped all qualifiers:

Stern instructions like those are in keeping with a trend aimed at assigning greater responsibility to Internet providers to assist the government and its army of as many as 50,000 Internet police, who enforce limits on what can be seen and said. — New York Times, March 4, 2005

There are Internet police in China, they have websites, lots of them. They engage in law enforcement duties. They also investigate websites. It is also, in my view, safe to assume that they investigate and arrest dissidents. In fact the Beijing cyberpolice accept reports (appears to be via SMS) from the public against persons who want to split the nation, or attack the party and the government, and people with “wrong doctrines opinion”/ falungong. (babelfish). Seems quite clear to me that the cyber police’s mandate is to investigate reports of people who criticize the government or belong to falun gong — it is right in their incident report form.

However, its the manufactured number and the near godlike capabilties assigned to China’s internet police and filtering/monitoring technology in most news reports that infurriates me. There is defintely a lot going on in this area in China, there is a lot left to investigate. However, reporting rumor as fact is not the way to go about this. It doesn’t help people better understand what is really going on in China, but it does re-enforce a climate of self-censorship in China.


  1. […] Police in China Myth, Please Not Again! Nearly two years after the “30,000″ myth was exposed it is still being repeated by reputable news […]

  2. […] repeatedly cite and reference the 30,000 number even though this has already been proven false by Nart Villeneuve and Ben Walker. In addition according to Nart Villeneuve EastSouthWestNorth, makes an interesting […]

  3. […] this number is fabricated: http://www.nartv.org/?p=127#internetpolice censor, censorship, china, constitution, Constitutional Law, freedom, government, law, liberty, […]

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