Friday, September 5, 2008
As is well known, the Chinese government engages in extensive monitoring and blocking of various foreign web sites in order to control what kind of information gets into the country. Indeed, this very blog is blocked in China. (I think it's part of a general blocking of the Typepad site and not connected with anything I wrote.) People disagree, however, on the effectiveness of this information blockade. Discussing Chinese web-site blocking in a 2006 Financial Times interview, Bill Gates said, "It is not possible to block information, it is just not." According to this view, getting around the Great Firewall of China is sufficiently simple that anyone with a very modest amount of determination and technical skill can do so.
This view has a lot to be said for it: it's quite true that it's remarkably easy to get around the GFW, and to the best of my knowledge it's not even illegal under Chinese law to do so. You can use a proxy server or a virtual private network; the free ones tend to have service restrictions or may be slow, but even the more effective fee-based ones are very cheap (maybe $40 a year or something like that).
But the reality seems to be different. I often receive e-mails from people working in (for example) foreign law firms or foreign financial institutions in China telling me that they can't access my blog. What does this mean? It means that these law firms and financial institutions, although their business relies critically on access to good information, have simply surrendered to the GFW even though they have deep pockets and specialized IT departments that could, if they wished, solve the problem by outsourcing it to a bright 12-year-old. I find this puzzling and actually a little shocking. It's hard to think of any institutions that would be more likely to get around the restrictions of the GFW - they have the money and the technical expertise. If they can't be bothered, how many others can be?