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Since repressive regimes like China and Iran adversely control all forms of media as part of their political censorship and propaganda system, the Internet has become the greatest hope for gaining freedom of information in these countries. These regimes can easily shut down newspapers, block TV channels, jam short-wave radios, ban books, and/or confiscate hard-copy materials, but the Internet is far more elusive and robust. It is a vast, fast, convenient, and inexpensive way to share information and communicate. With the drastic increase of Chinese Internet users in recent years, the Internet presents an historic opportunity.

The Internet has the potential to become the largest free communications medium and a window to the world for those living under repressive regimes. With the right technology and a proper online environment, the Internet can help bring messages of peace, freedom, and rule of law directly to the people. It can be used to help the US and other free countries win the hearts of the people in these nations. Our experience shows that the Chinese people and those in other oppressed regions are eager to access uncensored information, desire freedom, and want to make informed decisions. While it is important to discourage US corporations from cooperating with the local regimes in censoring information, Internet freedom more broadly is a reliable way to truly inform and empower the people and is perhaps the most effective way to foster positive social change.

Why is Internet Freedom Necessary?

There are certain things most people take for granted in the free world, like being able to go on the Internet to do a quick search on Google or email or IM a friend. But these routine online activities are actually fraught with risk in closed societies such as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Iran where all online activity is subject to censorship and monitoring.

In recent years many students, journalists, and businessmen in these nations have been arrested for writing emails or blogs that contain information that the state arbitrarily deems “sensitive.” What is it, one might ask, that these repressive regimes are so afraid of that they feel the need to suppress information and control what the people express? What is it they do not want people to see?

First of all, the nations that tend to suppress information are the ones that have a lot to hide. There are usually severe social problems in these societies such as serious unemployment and unrest, systemic and widespread corruption, and no rule of law. The leadership tends to believe that anything that goes wrong threatens their legitimacy, so they desperately want everyone to think things are stable and perfect in the society. They also know that if foreign investors were to see all the social ills and instability in the business environment, they may reconsider where to invest their funds.

Even when there are natural disasters and other potential dangers, some regimes will choose not to warn the populace. For example, the PRC’s unwillingness to admit there was a problem was a major factor in prolonging the SARS epidemic and contributed to the spread of the avian flu. In an increasingly interconnected world, this approach of denial and covering up poses a health risk of global proportions. These regimes also do not want the world to know about how they oppress their own people. In China, anyone who discusses the oppression of underground Christians, Falun Gong practitioners, and political dissidents is said to be “leaking state secrets.”

Secondly, repressive regimes do not want their people to see or hear about freedom and democracy in other nations. People who have had a taste of freedom will rarely willingly choose to live behind an Iron Curtain or a Bamboo Curtain because they realize an open society, for all its imperfections, is probably a more natural condition for humanity. It is part of human nature to wish to have a say in how they live their lives. Individuals need to feel free to think for themselves and believe in what they choose to believe in. Any healthy society will allow for differences and disagreements among people and understand that these differences will ultimately make the society more stable and resilient. But a repressive regime fears these outside influences because they are a threat to their absolute control and authorities will seek to block these “seditious” or “sacrilegious” ideas from entering the minds of the populace.

Finally, repressive regimes will not only block information but will take information control to another level – information becomes a tool for manipulation and indoctrination. Perhaps the most insidious example of this is the use of propaganda in Mainland China to whip up anti-US sentiment via television, radio, print media, and the Internet. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) not only blocks websites on the global Internet, the net the rest of the world uses, but actively feeds false information to the populace through its own internal Internet search engine, baidu, and censored version of Google.

Numerous online surveys on the Internet now suggest that the majority of Chinese users consider the United States their main potential enemy and the key obstacle to China’s rise. The result became patently clear on September 11, when tragedy struck on US soil and thousands of civilian lives were lost: 80% of the Mainland Chinese surveyed on the Internet said they believed the US “deserved the attack” and many took to the streets cheering. On February 2, 2003, Voice of America (VOA) reported that Chinese youths were rejoicing over the Columbia space shuttle disaster in which several American astronauts were killed, calling it the “most beautiful fireworks of the New Year.” [1]

Stirring up extreme nationalistic sentiment and having the population focus on an external “enemy” is, of course, just one more tactic that repressive regimes use to control their people -- keep the people occupied so they are less likely to focus on the problems in their own society. In certain fundamentalist societies, there are those who think that if the enemy, i.e. the US, has something then it must be immoral, such as a free press, a lively democratic system, and greater freedoms for women. As 9/11 showed us, violence begins with hate, and that hate is now being mongered in the Middle East and in Asia for the sake of political gain.

In a sense, a “cyber war” has already begun. “Patriotic hackers” in China have no qualms about infiltrating and taking down US government computer systems. They see the US as their enemy and their target, so no matter how malicious their actions, they feel justified. Most are encouraged by the state and some are even reported to be associated with Beijing’s Ministry of Public Security. Without a doubt, anti-US mentality on the part of more than a billion Chinese nationals, coupled with the expansion of China’s military power, constitute a grave threat to the US. [2] Anti-American sentiment in the Middle East, of course, has already had devastating consequences on US soil. Americans would be foolish to ignore the reality of this threat.

Firewall of Shame

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is by far the biggest offender when it comes to Internet censorship -- the apparatus of Internet repression is considered more extensive and more advanced than in any other country in the world. Forbes magazine featured an article entitled “Cracks In the Wall (Feb. 27, 2006):

“Censorship is quite an industry in China. Every village has spies to watch neighbors; the mail and the poster boards are watched, say expat Chinese. It is said (by dissidents) that China has 40,000 Web police hard at work just in Beijing, looking over the shoulders of Web users and composing lists of banned words that cause a Web search to freeze up or a site to automatically be blocked.”

In fact, the regime not only blocks website content but also monitors who is using the Internet and what they are using it for. Amnesty International notes that China “has the largest recorded number of imprisoned journalists and cyber-dissidents in the world.” The "offences" they are accused of include communicating with groups abroad, opposing the persecution of the Falun Gong, signing online petitions, and calling for reform and an end to corruption.

China’s censorship system is so vast and so comprehensive that no other country even comes close. In a sense, it is all the more dangerous because all other repressive states look to China to gain censorship technology and know-how.

Burma, also known as Myanmar, is one of China’s largest neighbors to the south. Next to China, it is the top offender in Internet censorship in Asia as it is currently run by a group of military officials who maintain authoritarian rule over the state. Because of strict controls by the state and poverty on the part of the populace, less than 1% of the population uses the Internet in Burma. The censorship system combines broad, vague laws with harsh penalties and the Internet control is just part of the general regulation of speech by the state. Internet access is expensive and most dial-up Internet accounts provide access only to the limited Myanmar Internet, not to the global network that most people around the world can access. The state implements surveillance of communication methods such as e-mail and blocks users from viewing certain Web sites, including those of political opposition groups and organizations working for democratic change in Burma.

Iran has by far the largest number of Internet users in the Middle East [Ref 12], but it is also known to have the most sophisticated state-mandated Internet filtering systems in the region. The Islamist government has implemented filtering technology to control the tremendous growth in Internet usage among its citizens as more and more Iranians become interested in writing online in the Farsi language. Individuals who subscribe to Internet service providers (ISPs) must promise in writing not to access "non-Islamic" sites. The law requires ISPs to install filtering mechanisms that cover access to both Web sites and e-mail. Punishment for violations of content-related laws can be harsh. In an effort to curb access to foreign websites and prevent political opposition groups from organizing by uploading information on to the Internet, service providers must restrict online speeds to 128 kilobits per second (kbps) and they have been forbidden from offering fast broadband packages.

Internet Usage Statistics in Relevant Countries
(Data from Internet World Stats, Jan 2008)
Country Internet Users Penetration 2000-2007 Growth
United States 215M 71.4% 126%
Japan 88M 68.0% 86%
Australia 15M 75.9% 133%
United Kingdom 40M 66.4% 162%
France 35M 54.7% 310%
Germany 53M 64.6% 124%
Brazil 43M 22.8% 752%
Russia 28M 19.5% 803%
India 60M 13.0% 1,110%
China 210M 15.9% 830%
Iran 18M 27.5% 7,100%
Viet Nam 18M 21.4% 9,013%
Myanmar (Burma) 0.3M 0.5% 29,900%
Singapore 2.4M 53% 102%
Uzbekistan 1.7M 6.3% 23,166%
Belarus 5.5M 56.3% 2,943%
Egypt 6.0M 7.5% 1,233%
Saudi Arabia 4.7M 19.5% 2,250%
Tunisia 1.6M 15.7% 1,518%
United Arab Em 1.7M 38.4% 132%
Syria 1.5M 7.8% 4,900%
Bahrain 0.16M 22.2% 293%
Yemen 0.27M 1.2% 1,700%
Cuba 0.2M 2.1% 300%
Turkmenistan 0.06M 1.3% 3,140%
North Korea n/a 0.0% n/a

The Potential of the Internet to Bring Information Freedom to Closed Societies

The Internet is essentially the biggest, fastest, and most efficient communications medium in the world and it has tremendous potential for reaching the largest number of people in closed societies. For example, by 2009, there will likely be more Internet users in China than in the US and the number of Iranian Internet users is increasing at a rapid rate of 25% each year. 

Free flow of information is clearly a major key to advancing freedom, human rights, and social justice around the world and the Internet is perhaps now the most powerful information tool available.

Dissident groups, human rights defenders, journalists, intellectuals, students, persecuted religious groups, lawyers, and businessmen all see the potential of the Internet to build communication and foster peaceful and positive social change. Forbes magazine writes that compared to the more traditional forms of media, the dispersed nature of the Internet is one thing that works in the favor of dissidents: “There are approximately 800 million Internet users on the globe, and potentially any one of them can serve up offending documents. Something like 35 million Chinese live abroad, beyond the reach of the thought police. They have news-thirsty friends and relatives back home.”

If the free world is at all interested in helping the millions of people living in closed societies who wish to have the freedom to think for themselves and express themselves, it must not ignore the Internet as a primary communication channel. Free flow of information is the foundation for engagement with the people, as opposed to the ruling authorities, of these societies.

The US government has come to realize it is in its long-term business and strategic interests to protect information freedom in Asia and the Middle East, and protect the freedom of the Internet in particular. As part of its commitment to defending the values of democracy, freedom, and social justice both in the United States and elsewhere in the world, the US Secretary of State established the Global Internet Freedom Task Force (GIFT) on February 14, 2006 to consider the foreign policy aspects of Internet freedom (Ref. 9). The Task Force is concerned about:

  • The use of technology to restrict access to political content and the impact of such censorship efforts on U.S. companies;
  • The use of technology to track and repress dissidents; and
  • Efforts to modify Internet governance structures in order to restrict the free flow of information.

In addition, the Global Online Freedom Act, a bill introduced to the US Congress in 2006 and 2007, declares that it is U.S. policy to: (Ref. 10)

(1) promote the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media; (2) use all appropriate instruments of U.S. influence to support the free flow of information; and (3) deter U.S. businesses from cooperating with Internet-restricting countries in effecting online censorship.

The European Union has also expressed its concern about the surveillance and censorship of information on the Internet. In a resolution on December 13, 2007 on the EU-China Summit and the EU/China human rights dialogue, the European Parliament specifically urged “the Chinese authorities to immediately stop censoring and blocking - especially with the help of multinational companies - thousands of news and information websites based abroad,” and called “for the release of all journalists, Internet users and cyber-dissidents detained in China for exercising their right to information.” [ref 13]

Developing Internet Anti-censorship Systems is the Key

The key to breaking through the censorship in repressive regimes is developing Internet anti-censorship tools. A small number of “hacktivists” have had some success. James C. Mulvenon, Ph.D., Director of Advanced Studies and Analysis of the DGI Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission in 2005 that in China, “To date, only a few groups have managed to deploy programs that have generated substantial levels of traffic. The two groups that are currently enjoying the greatest success in that regard are Dynaweb and UltraReach.” (Ref. 11)

Both Dynaweb and UltraReach are part of a consortium of U.S.-based organizations whose personnel have extensive expertise and proven success in anti-jamming technologies and Internet development. Most of these organizations have previously focused most of their efforts on China but some have also created products in Farsi to target Iran.

The Consortium partners are truly field-tested: they have had unprecedented success in creating anti-censorship technologies that can penetrate China’s Great Firewall and they have also been able to react quickly to attacks from state censors. They have accumulated several years of experience in providing successful end-to-end secure services and have enabled Internet users in China to visit blocked websites such as Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Asia (RFA), CNN, and the uncensored version of Google. Mulvenon notes: “The services Ultrareach provides to VOA and RFA have generated substantial levels of traffic from Chinese web surfers. In May 2004… Ultrareach’s https, UltraScape, and UltraSurf systems allowed a daily average of about 4,000 visits and nearly 30,000 page views for VOA, and about 2,600 visits and 28,000 page views each day for RFA.”

Bill Xia, chief executive officer of Dynamic Internet Technology Inc., another member of the Consortium wrote in an LA Times article:

“We launched DynaWeb in March 2002, and within six months, our domain was ‘hijacked.’ Users who tried to get to our ‘middleman’ servers were diverted to bogus servers that led them nowhere. Some users, however, provided us with detailed information collected from their computers, and thanks to this help, we were able to thwart the hijacking and resume operations after three painful weeks. Our volunteers have proved again and again that we can defeat even China's costly technologies and its legions of Internet police. Chinese citizens are hungry for uncensored information. When we first launched, one excited user sent us a message that read, simply, ‘Thank you’ — repeated hundreds of times.”

The goal of the Consortium is to build a pioneering online institution that breaks down barriers blocking the free flow of information from the United States via the Internet penetrating into, moving within, and coming out of repressive regimes such as Iran, China, and Burma. This online institution will provide different communication tools such as email and instant messengers as well as an anti-jamming delivery system. It will also organize and provide content relating to freedom, human rights, and democracy from US websites to Internet users in these nations.  

This open, free, and resource-rich online portal will enable hundreds of millions of users, both inside and outside of these repressive nations, to share information and viewpoints freely without fear of reprisal and with protection of privacy. It will be used to create an online environment to inform, connect, and empower the people in these countries.

As a group, the Global Internet Freedom Consortium has demonstrated they have the commitment, technology, competence in project management, and the capacity to mobilize manpower to move the project forward. With more funding, the group hopes to rapidly scale up its operations and topple the Firewalls surrounding closed societies once and for all.

Severity of the Problem and the Urgency

Closed societies are inherently unstable because the states must rely on constant monitoring, surveillance, and control in order to maintain a semblance of order. While it is inherently not a sustainable situation, the governing authorities will spare no cost or effort in the attempt to maintain that control for as long as they can because that control represents their power.

Chinese society, for example, is today fraught with corruption and social unrest. All over China, farmers, urban poor, and migrant workers have been staging demonstrations to express their dissatisfaction with the CCP’s governance. (Ref. 14) By the state’s own admission, in 2005, there were 87,000 incidents of social unrest in China involving a total of 3.8 million people. This means a riot or protest was occurring, on average, every six minutes. (Ref. 15) Many of these incidents were due to state-run enterprises failing to provide their workers with a living wage and incidents where local officials abused their authority in search of personal gain. The rapidly growing number of crises within the population have made the CCP increasingly rely on nationalism and more repressive control, especially information control. The CCP’s determination to maintain its monopoly on power has short-changed the economic reform and created a high-risk business and political environment. In an environment without rule of law, foreign companies cannot even be sure they can enforce basic contracts and agreements.

Decades after the initiation of engage-and-trade, the CCP’s monopolistic control has not abated in any meaningful way, and democratic values and ideals have made few inroads into Chinese society. On the contrary, it appears the CCP’s propaganda has extended to the United States. In fact, the engage-and-trade policy has significantly enhanced the CCP’s legitimacy and has therefore indirectly weakened the voices of democracy advocates in China. Furthermore, in an effort to gain a piece of China’s business and elusive market share, some corporations have stumbled over one another to appease the CCP, willingly playing by the CCP’s rules, helping the CCP to censor information, equipping the CCP with the capability to catch writers and journalists critical of the regime, and even providing the Chinese police with the private user information of those wanted by the CCP.

*** ***

Sun Tzu may have been referring to this kind of “information war” when he wrote in The Art of War: “Conquering a city militarily is only the second best. The best is to win the hearts and minds of its people.” Of course, the purpose at hand is not to conquer but to have these societies engage in free and fair trade with other nations and abide by international covenant regarding human rights and civil liberties for their own citizens.

The stakes are high. Any serious economic, political, or stability problem in China will mean instability on a global scale. When China has a serious domestic problem, the CCP frequently employs as a distraction a tactic of inciting extreme nationalism and anti-US sentiments. The CCP’s monopoly on power is the root cause of China’s problems, and it is dangerously optimistic to believe that the CCP can willingly let go of its information control or stop using it to indoctrinate its people. If no immediate action is taken, the result will be the creation of a powerful, wealthy nation that has a blatant disregard for basic human dignity and deep-seated anti-US sentiments. In addition, if the CCP flourishes in China, that will set an example for other repressive regimes such as North Korea, Iran, and Cuba.

History has shown that peaceful change and transformation can come when citizens become aware of alternative forms of governance and actually want change to happen. Those on the outside can help by engaging with those within the closed societies and providing them with the information and technology they need.

Only when we can communicate with the people of a society can they come to understand the benefits of having a more free and open society and engaging with the rest of the world. Only when individuals have information can they have the knowledge and power to govern themselves and improve their environment.

If this problem is not solved now, it will be significantly more costly to solve in the future. A peaceful transition to freedom and democracy in closed societies such as China, Iran, and Burma is possible only if the US takes the lead in reversing the trend of legitimizing and empowering the entities that currently rule these nations. The US must make a commitment to support the efforts to tear down the Firewall that separates these nations from the rest of the world.



2. Office of the Secretary of Defense, “The Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2005.”



5. CNN report, “China facing big SARS spread – WHO,” April 22, 2003.

6. Howard W. French, ‘Letter From China: Beijing fails to deliver on promise of honesty,’ The New York Times, Wednesday, November 30, 2005.

7. Hannah Beech, “Inside the Pitchfork Rebellion,” Time Magazine, March 13, 2006.

8. From SPECIAL TO WORLD TRIBUNE.COM, Thursday, March 2, 2006. Dr. Lam is a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation and is based in Hong Kong.

[9] Secretary of State Establishes New Global Internet Freedom Task Force.

[10] Global Online Freedom Act of 2007.

11. James Mulvenon in a USCC hearing.

12. World Internet Stats

13. European Parliament resolution of 13 December 2007 on the EU-China Summit and the EU/China human rights dialogue

14. Hannah Beech, “Inside the Pitchfork Rebellion,” Time Magazine, March 13, 2006.

15. From SPECIAL TO WORLD TRIBUNE.COM, Thursday, March 2, 2006. Dr. Lam is a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation and is based in Hong Kong.


Copyright (c) Global Internet Freedom Consortium, 2008. All rights reserved.