Saturday, February 16, 2002
There's another great article on the Weekly Standard's Web site on China's access to the Internet. The Internet in China isn't the Information Superhighway that it is in the United States. It's more like Big Brother central, where news sites like CNN and The New York Times are blocked, and every e-mail message read and monitored.
If that isn't scary enough, what is extremely frustrating is the complicity that many American high-tech companies have in creating this atmosphere.
In China, the government had a unique problem: how to keep a billion people from accessing politically sensitive websites, now and forever.
The way to do it would be this: If a Chinese user tried to view a website outside China with political content, such as CNN.com, the address would be recognized by a filter program that screens out forbidden sites. The request would then be thrown away, with the user receiving a banal message: "Operation timed out." Great, but China's leaders had a problem: The financial excitement of a wired China quickly led to a proliferation of eight major Internet service providers (ISPs) and four pipelines to the outside world. To force compliance with government objectives--to ensure that all pipes lead back to Rome--they needed the networking superpower, Cisco, to standardize the Chinese Internet and equip it with firewalls on a national scale. According to the Chinese engineer, Cisco came through, developing a router device, integrator, and firewall box specially designed for the government's telecom monopoly. At approximately $20,000 a box, China Telecom "bought many thousands" and IBM arranged for the "high-end" financing. (American computer engineer Michael) Robinson confirms: "Cisco made a killing. They are everywhere."
So, what can the United States do? Fortunately there's a solution, they're called proxy servers.
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 twenty 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 websites 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.
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 website has been a high-profile target of Chinese blocking, last summer began funding Triangle Boy to the tune of $10,000 per 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 one 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 as well. 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.
If the U.S. is serious about freedom in China, it would do well to fully fund this system that could help bring information, and an eventual democratic revolution, to China.