How Do We Know What We Don’t Know?

China, Internet Filtration Technology, and Knowledge Sharing

There are 1.3 billion people in the People’s Republic of China, more than enough warm bodies for the government to employ hundreds of thousands of full time Internet censors, which they do.  I can not be certain if this missive is being read either on line or in the transmission stage from China to the States.  All messages going out of the country are filtered for key words as are all websites being accessed.  Therefore I will omit the most heinous key words (that have to do with current world events over a major once every four years sports event occurring in this country) and talk around it as if I were being censored.  Which, in essence, I am.

This filtration is called the “Golden Shield Project”.  There are only three points of entry to the Internet from China, two in Japan and one in Hong Kong.  All the international gateways have a “network sniffer”.  These were originally manufactured by Cisco but now China’s own technology giants make the same product.  The effects of sniffer use is most evident in the handling of messages that do not agree with the ruling party’s ideology when these messages are funneled through one of the major Internet e-mail providers.

Web sites are also filtered to varying degrees.  The simplest way this is done is with a DNS (Domain Name System) block that doesn’t let the request for information get through.  However, if you do manage to get the site, it may return with a “connect reset” or “site not found” message that is indicative of the second level of blocking.  Then there is the “URL Roving Keyword Block” of inflammatory politically incorrect terms that change depending on the political winds.  Lastly there is the page content blackout, as occasionally happens to CNN or the New York Times if the government does not like the information on their pages.  It recently happened when the female third most important politician in the States met with a politically banned person of note.

Part of the rabid patriotism in this country is heartfelt, and part of it is through direct and intentional manipulation of state media.  Unless I supply my Chinese friends with information they tend to be rather uninformed about the world events that tarnish the image of their country.  This leads to the question of how do you know what you don’t know?  The simple answer is that you don’t.  I mention specific events concerning world news to friends, and they are shocked.  They had no idea.  Even people who work high up in cultural and ministerial positions are unaware of the extent of manipulation and filtering of their own private data.  Such data manipulation is apparently no longer confined to the theoretical, it is a fact of life.

Other knowledge sharing “problems” can crop up in China that would be unlikely elsewhere.  One friend in a sensitive cultural post had the misfortune to use Yahoo.fr (France) as her Internet provider.  When the recent tensions with that country were at their highest, none of her messages went out, a terrible situation for a person in the government who deals with time sensitive international bookings.  However, once you understand the parameters there are many shades of grey and tints of brown and blue that enable one to find cracks in the blockading walls.  Knowledge is fluid and analogies go a long way.  Human sensitivity and nuance is vast.  Cisco routers can take you only so far.  In the meantime, those in China will have to rely upon the creative use of language.  Language is poetry and as we all know, poetry can set you free.

Ellen Pearlman is a senior analyst at Basex.

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