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How the U.S. Can Free China's Internet

Thursday, 02 May 2002 12:00 AM

Why has there been so little oversight of the corporate activity aiding China's oppression? As American computer engineer Michael Robinson puts it, for the first four years of the Net era, those with paranoid visions of China's government were never quite able to square their suspicions with the rapid expansion of the Chinese Internet.

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. Apparently the bureaucrats liked monitoring pornography so much that they had a massive backlog. State security was said to be lax, corrupt, full of holes.

Chinese ISPs were happy to sell prepaid Internet cards (covered with colorful Chinese advertisements for the latest TV series) on the streets of Beijing, just like prepaid phone cards. Chinese whiz kids could still surf through the firewall and beyond. Associations could flourish among the patrons of the cybercafes, using anonymous monikers. Many saw the Internet as a populist river leading to the ocean of the global community.

Then, the Chinese government abruptly built a cyber-version of the Three Gorges Dam.

In October 2000, the State Council ordered Internet Service Providers to hold all Chinese user data – phone numbers, time, and surfing history – for at least 60 days thus making the stealthy prepaid ISP card vulnerable to a phone trace, or to simply linking up a name with a phone number.

In November, commercial news sites were banned. In December, the National People's Congress decreed all unauthorized online political activity illegal.

January 2001 saw the criminalization of Internet transfer of "state secret information," such as reports of human rights violations. February brought "Internet Police 110," software blocking "cults, sex, and violence" while monitoring users' attempts to access such sites.

By March, the surveillance started to work; hundreds of e-mails on the controversy surrounding a schoolhouse bombing in Jiangxi disappeared. Around the same time, Chinese authorities announced near completion of a "black box" to collect all information flowing across the Internet.

In April, arrests of freedom activists using the Web and a nationwide crackdown on cybercafes reached critical mass. Surviving cafes had to install internal monitoring software. E-mail to Tibet now took three days to get through, if at all, and Falun Gong e-mail was completely eradicated.

By October 2001, when President Bush flew to Shanghai for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit, he was entering an Internet police state. To deflect criticism, but perhaps also as a demonstration of power, blocks on U.S. news Web sites were magically lifted by Chinese authorities. The minute Bush went airborne, the blocks were back in place.

During Bush's visit to China in February 2002, any attempt to discuss loosening Chinese Internet controls was undoubtedly brushed aside using the rhetoric of our own struggle against terrorism (what, you're against surveillance?). But if the Chinese leadership took this tack, they were covering up their underlying motives.

There were urgent reasons for the Chinese Internet crackdown; fighting terrorism wasn't one of them. Instead, look to the slow-motion crisis of a leadership transition, the release of the Tiananmen papers, the emergence of a cyber-Falun Gong, and a stirring – you could feel it on the street – for greater freedom of expression, if not genuine democracy.

Then again, there may be a more elaborate game afoot. Chairman Mao knew the utility of briefly loosening controls to create a dragnet. In effect, the current Chinese leadership promoted a "hundred flowers" period of relative Internet freedom – again, not to capture terrorists, but to expose anyone who disagreed with the legitimacy of their rule and to attract massive Western investment.

American technologies of surveillance, encryption, firewalls, and viruses have now been transferred to Chinese partners – and might even one day be turned against our own ludicrously open Internet. We funded, built, and pushed into China what we thought was a Trojan Horse, but we forgot to build the hatch.

Consider a Chinese user in search of an unblocked news site (weeklystandard.com, for example). Perhaps he’s looking for something on the Taiwanese elections, or perhaps it’s VIP reference, or CNN, or even an unblocked American site such as the Weekly Standard. He won't expect to get through, and if he does, it will be cause for alarm, for the site may be a tripwire – not for spam, but for state security.

Everything he does on the Web might conceivably be used against him. Pornography? Potentially, a two-year sentence. Political? Possible permanent loss of career, family, and freedom.

E-mail may be the most risky. Two years ago, working from my office in a Chinese TV studio, I received an e-mail from a U.S. friend (in a browser-based Hotmail account, no less, which in theory should be difficult to monitor) with the words "China," "unrest," "labor," and "Xinjiang" in queer half-tone brackets, as if the words had been picked out by a filter. I now realize that it was a warning; any savvy Chinese user would have sensed it instantly.

Before the crackdown one could escape and surf anonymously in a cybercafe or use a proxy server – another computer that acts as an intermediary between surfers and Web sites, helping to hide their Web footprints and evade the filters.

Not surprisingly, the most common search words in China were not words such as "Britney" and "hooters," but words such as "free" and "proxy." At least 10 percent of Chinese users – about 2 million people – used proxies regularly in an attempt to circumvent government controls.

In what Robinson calls "the first sign of cleverness" by the government, a proxy pollution campaign began last spring when the Chinese authorities either developed or imported a system that sniffs the networks for signs of proxies. A user, frantically typing in proxy addresses until he finds one that isn't blocked, effectively provides the government with a tidy blacklist.

After a few of these tedious sessions, many of my Chinese friends simply gave up climbing over the firewall. For a small fee, expat users could turn to a Web-based proxy browser, such as Anonymizer. But credit cards are blocked for the vast majority of Chinese citizens. Just for good measure, Anonymizer was finally blocked as well.

Is China’s Internet beyond redemption? Is it destined to be a tool of surveillance and repression, managed by the Chinese government and serviced by cynical Western partners? Maybe not.

The Great Firewall might be vulnerable to a few physicists at the University of Oregon. I spent a day watching Stephen Hsu diagram the Chinese Web and its weaknesses. Hsu and his company, SafeWeb, have developed a proxy server system called Triangle Boy. The triangle refers to the Chinese user, to a fleet of servers outside of the firewall, and to a mothership which the servers report to, but the Chinese government cannot find.

Already tens of thousands of Chinese users have connected with it; five of the top 20 Triangle Boy search sites are in the Chinese language. Every day, the Chinese user receives an e-mail listing new addresses of Triangle Boy servers, which allow the user to visit Web sites that they would otherwise be unable to reach. Because the addresses of the servers change constantly, the system is practically unbeatable. Any attack, especially on the mothership, requires enormous resources.

But as surely as Triangle Boy works to liberate the surfing Chinese masses, you can bet State Security is looking for a way to pounce on this latest proxy rebellion. The simplest one will be to enlist American companies, still eager to curry favor in Beijing, and get them to develop software allowing the Public Security Bureau to sniff out and block proxies as quickly as they are created.

Yet this sort of U.S. corporate activity could be targeted by oversight entities such as the U.S.-China Security Review Commission, and the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. And American companies in China could take meaningful action simply by subscribing to a variant of the Hippocratic Oath: First of all, do no more harm.

A pledge of, at least, stern neutrality from the American Chamber of Commerce in Beijing and the U.S.-China Business Council would indicate a seminal shift in business attitudes and might help to restrain further transfers of proxy-sniffing technology. These initiatives would be valuable, particularly in slowing the pursuit of Triangle Boy and other proxies. But the Chinese leadership, having come this far, isn’t likely to call off the dogs.

The only practical solution to this puzzle is for the Bush administration to make Internet freedom in China a high priority. At the moment it is a laughably small priority.

The Voice of America, whose Web site has been a high-profile target of Chinese blocking, last summer began funding Triangle Boy to the tune of $10,000 a month. VOA officials undertook that small effort in frustration; they attempt to send daily news via e-mail to some 800,000 addresses in China, with no guarantee that they are getting through.

Hsu estimates that supplying 1 million Chinese users with Triangle Boy (approximately 600 million page views a month) would require just $1 million annually. Budgeted at $300 million a year, VOA has the means and is wisely looking at several other solutions such as Peekabooty and a new program called Socket2me by hacktavismo.

The hacker idealists in the Internet community have begun to respond, even with the scarce funding I’ve described; recognition is growing that competing systems could frustrate the Chinese authorities. But for VOA to justify an anti-blocking effort on a scale that will make a difference, it will need to be seen as carrying out an important plank of American foreign policy, not just acting on the margins as it is now.

And why not make this a higher profile U.S. policy? Cracking the Chinese firewall is at least as technically interesting as strategic defense.

Triangle Boy is still theoretically vulnerable to spoof sites, authorization problems, or a Code Red-style worm attacking the servers. And recent Chinese government statements have targeted foreign attempts to overcome the firewall, implying that they are well aware of Triangle Boy’s efforts. That implies a need for a highly technical layering operation, involving an endless and ever-changing supply of low-key Web-based proxies, mirror sites, and encrypted e-mail and instant messenger services in Mandarin, and English, in sufficient volume to overwhelm the Chinese firewall.

Creative engineers, unleashed to solve the problem of bringing Internet freedom to China, might take any number of approaches. They might go through Hong Kong, where illicit cables are said to run to Guangzhou. They might cut some deals with a "loose" Chinese ISP, such as Jitong. They might use messages formatted as images to defeat software that sniffs out characters. They might exploit the fact that Chinese Internet addresses were originally configured in peculiar blocks. Or the fact that the government's proxy-hunters come from only a few locations.

A shrewd native engineer could probably root out and defeat 99 percent of these government agents.

None of these measures will be cheap. Nor can we expect the U.S. government to fully manage such a multi-pronged private and public defense of Internet freedom. Even if they back the overall concept, administration officials will inevitably want deniability about certain parts of such an operation. This means the project will need to attract the support of foundations, human rights groups, religious organizations – any group that cares about a free China.

But it will be worth it. Given the willingness of capitalists to work hand-in-hand with the Chinese regime, the Internet may be the only force left that is potentially anti-hierarchical. Think of it as a way to levy a Web-based freedom tax on the Chinese government. Think of it also as a way around the university students and the intelligentsia, who are overrated as agents for change in China.

As the father of the Chinese Internet Michael Robinson notes, "In the Chinese Internet's infancy, the first three sites that the government blocked were two anti-government sites – and one Maoist site. What threatens them? ... The heartland." Ultimately, it won't be the intellectuals who are key to bringing freedom to China.

Irate overtaxed peasants with Internet-enabled cell phones 10 years from now are the real target market. And those whose dream is freedom in China are operating with diminishing points of entry. The American business presence in China is deeply, perhaps fatally, compromised as an agent for change.

The Internet remains the strongest force for freedom available to the Chinese people. But it remains a mere potentiality, yet another American dream, unless we first grapple with the question: Who lost China's Internet? Well, we did. But we can still repair the damage.

We can, in Robinson's words, "lay down the communication network for revolution." If we don't, his progeny may not forgive us.

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Why has there been so little oversight of the corporate activity aiding China's oppression? As American computer engineer Michael Robinson puts it, for the first four years of the Net era, those with paranoid visions of China's government were never quite able to square...
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Thursday, 02 May 2002 12:00 AM
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