Saturday, September 18

Be Your Own Internet Gatekeeper – Taming the Beast

In the mid-1980s, Apple Computer started the “desktop publishing revolution” by pairing its new, graphics-oriented Macintosh with the first 300-dot-per-inch (dpi) LaserWriter. So excited was one computer industry pundit – whose “insider” industry newsletter was one of the first of that extraordinarily profitable kind – that she insisted on the most sensational sort of boosterism. “This [technology] is going to put the First Amendment into overdrive!” was one banner banner headline over the breathless proclaimers. Eager was the other.

Not everyone was so optimistic. “It’s like thinking that the invention of movable-seating cars will increase safety,” one technology writer said at the time. He knew it would take time to make the devices mass-market; he just didn’t know when they would become popular.

Who won the DTP revolution?

Looking back over the past 25 years, it is clear that his prediction came true. Most of the big DTP players, of course, were practical jousters. Microsoft, for example, took the lead in notebook computing by introducing the Windows operating system and Office in the late 1980s. They were late to the desktop PC, but already in style.

By the late 1990s, all the big names were firmly on their way to making the PC into a mass-market notebook computer. HP, for example, marked its entry into the mass-market notebook market with the Form 2 handheld computer in 1998. By that year, 13% of LAN users were using the BeagleBoard system, an inexpensive Linux-based system designed to run a variety of applications.

By late 2003, however, the Linux operating system had gained a hold of the CAN bus – Canada’s national network – and had begun to claim some serious rivals. Last year,Linux.org, the leading open-source software community, released version 2 of the Linux operating system. The new version can step up to 4 Mbps. In that sense, it is perhaps a bit of a surprise that China didn’t jump on the DTP bandwagon, but then again, they didn’t exactly have a choice; Intel made it clear from the beginning that they would offer their own version of encryption, and that their business was based on selling computers.

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Regardless, Chinese authorities chose to build a censorship program around the ineffective Windows XP platform, and chose not to make the jump to the highly market-oriented Linux servers.

This suggests that if there is any hope of making the Internet operate more like a backbone and less like a string, it will require both governments and Internet users to work together to build consensus. Yet, even as China opened the Great Firewall, it was evident that the Chinese government would spend much of its waning power in trying to build a massive network of Internet police.

Thus, it is little surprise that the latest round of Internet censorship, which began on February 9, is already beginning to show signs of strain. Just before the start of the new year, the government announced that it would be ending the “Great Firewall” in march 2005. Then in July, according to a Global Times report, the government decided to block access to Google, Yahoo and Microsoft domains in retribution for Chinese dissident groups posting embarrassing pictures and testimonials on the Internet.

These moves reveal a country where the treading of the March 2009 revolution will be keen. So, what paths will China’s government take to keep its censorship mechanisms intact and unwilful? The risk of having to again choose between the Great Firewall and open society appears greater than ever.

Enter the China Internet Network Safety Program (CNNSP), which is a set of policies designed to help establish “productive and friendly cooperation” among China’s disparate political and social forces. CNNSP article 29, which lays out the basic policies of the CNNSP, provides examples of how the new approach will be implemented. Among other things, the program pledges to:

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Protect citizens’ access to information and privacy. Sources and content that the Chinese government does not want to be distributed will be blocked. So if you are visiting China’s Wikipedia or YouTube and are reading this article, it better be because you are on a blacklist.

Minimizing the risk of citizens’ personal information being stolen or misused will be a high priority for the new CNNSP. “For us, the greatest threat about the Internet is the tremendous amount of personal information that is being produced and distributed by untrustworthy sources,” says CNNSP Administrator Qiao. “With the Internet, there’s a false sense of security because people think in terms of laws and governments and companies have to respond to the concerns and protect the user.”

CNNSP members are divided into six groups depending on their level of Internet access. Each group has different degrees of filtering power and access.

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