UK and China not such strange bedfellows in war on porn

Got to keep that porn out somehow. Ben Davis

Not long after David Cameron announced the UK’s remarkable proposals to block and ban online pornography, commentators were quick to point out similarities with what has been common practice in China. One Twitter user even came up with the term “Hadrian’s Firewall,” echoing the metaphor of the “Great Firewall” so often employed in media reports about China.

The irony that the UK government is proposing to introduce the exact same internet censorship mechanisms that it has routinely condemned in China has so far received little attention. Part of the reason for this is that many people in the UK tend to have an exaggerated view of what goes on in China to begin with and therefore the comparison seems far-fetched. But is it, really?

China’s freest media environment, by far, is found online. Control of the internet in the country is nowhere near as oppressive as control of film, television, and printed media. This is partly because the internet is much harder to police, but also because it plays a crucial role in business communications between China and the outside world, which need to function efficiently in order for the economic miracle to continue.

The Chinese absolutely love the internet. In no other country are people quite so enthusiastic about social networking, and platforms such as Twitter “imitation” Weibo or text/speech messaging service Wechat have become incredibly popular.

So what about censorship? The internet in China is “protected” from unwanted content in two main ways. First, there is the Great Firewall, a system which ensures that no computers in China can make direct connections to servers outside the country that are on a blacklist.

Some western media outlets and political organisations are on that list, but for the most part the list is populated by porn sites. The Chinese government holds that pornography is unhealthy for anyone regardless of age. Contrary to the UK proposals, the Chinese version of the firewall does not allow adults to decide whether or not they want to “opt in.”

If they want to access online pornography, or any other banned site, they have to do so through a Virtual Private Network (VPN), an intermediary server that is not itself on the blacklist but provides access to sites that are. Interestingly, Chinese websites selling access to such VPNs are not banned and can be easily found online. In other words, Chinese business can make money off individuals wanting to surf beyond the Firewall. This is not too different from what will inevitably happen in the UK, namely that any internet user wanting to “opt in” to receive access to pornography will have to pay an additional fee to their internet provider.

The second method of censorship employed to control the internet in China is filtering. This applies not only to connections between servers inside China and those abroad, but also to domestic connections. Most of the content filtering is done by content providers themselves, rather than by government offices. However, the government sets out rough guidelines as to what kind of keywords are suspect and, in some cases, issues direct orders to block certain terms for specific periods of time.

Filters imposed on search engines are the most effective. If users cannot search for illegal terms, then it will be hard for them to find the actual material, even if it does exist online. Most search engines that are active on the Chinese market (both domestic ones and foreign ones, like Yahoo) inform users searching for sensitive keywords that some results have been filtered out, because they may contain illegal content.

This is exactly what the UK government has proposed to make it harder for users to access illegal forms of pornography. The idea is that Google and others will voluntarily filter out the kind of keywords regularly used to find, for instance, rape porn. In China, Google refused to cooperate with such a policy, citing concerns about freedom of speech, and moved its search engine to Hong Kong (though leaving in place its more harmless Chinese offerings of Google Maps and Google Translate). It remains to be seen how Google is to react to the UK government proposals.

When western governments or activists criticise the Chinese state for “censoring the internet,” pornography is never mentioned. What concerns the critics of the Chinese regime is that it curbs freedom of political expression, not that it has a relatively prudish view of sexual expression.

The underlying assumption was, for a very long time, that the internet must always be a force for good, an avenue towards freedom for those starved of information that, if accessible, would empower them. What Cameron’s proposals have made clear to us is that, when it comes to censoring the internet, China and the UK now have more in common than before.