Behind the Great Firewall of China
Duncan Smith; Digital Vision; Getty Images
While packing for a recent work trip to China, there was one thing at the forefront of my mind - I was on the verge of a week unconnected from everything I've grown to know over the past few years. I'm not talking about the time difference making it tough to stay in contact with friends and family, I'm talking about the infamous Great Firewall of China.
Enough to send a shiver down the spine of any social media addict, the Great Firewall of China means no access to most of the sites we're now used to using every day, including Facebook and Twitter and search engines like Google.
Having previously received panicked phone calls from my mum to check I'm ok because I hadn't updated my Facebook status for a few days (yes, really), I thought it best to inform everyone that I wouldn't be online during the next week. Cue shocked faces and looks of pity. How would I cope?
It does seem an alien concept to us - not being allowed to access the internet as we please (within reason, of course). While many of us could arguably benefit with a break from Facebook or Twitter, access to a choice of news channels and the ability to search out information and different viewpoints as we please is something we now take for granted, as a basic human right.
Yet this freedom is something the residents of China haven't enjoyed since the Golden Shield Project - the official name for the countrywide firewall - began operations in November 2003.
The political and ideological background to the project is considered to have come from a quote by former Communist Party of China leader, Deng Xiaoping. He said: "If you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in."
As such, the window to the world wide web has been firmly shut for eight years now, and is only opened to allow government-approved information in. The government says this is to 'protect' China and its people from alternative ideologies from overseas, which it believes could ruin the country's harmonious way of life.
So what exactly does this mean? Well, Facebook and Twitter are out - as is Wikipedia, YouTube and seemingly harmless news sites like BBC News. International blogging sites are on the whole banned and certain topics and phrases are blacklisted and unsearchable on search engines - even some historical events, such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
The latter caused issues for Google, which did - for a short while - reluctantly censor its results in order to get past the firewall. That was until the beginning of last year when it announced it would be lifting all of its censorship following evidence that Chinese officials had hacked the Gmail accounts of a number of Chinese human rights activists.
Following its return to open search, Google once again became unreachable in China within two months.
So how do Chinese people feel about this internet roadblock from the wider world? I spoke to our Shanghai tour guide, David, to ask what the general feeling was on the restrictions.
"People don't really mind," he said, to my surprise. "We have our own version of Facebook and Twitter that all of our friends use, and so that's all people really care about about.
"And we can access the banned sites if we really want to. There are ways around it. But most people I know just don't bother."
Having previously expected a wrought iron online defence against the government-banned sites, after speaking to David I decided to find out just how easy it was to get around 'The Wall'.
Sure enough, a quick search online brought up a whole host of free web-based proxies that allow you to bypass the censors. I got one loaded into my phone and was browsing within minutes. It's fairly slow - so YouTube is a no go - and it's not secure, but it worked just fine for me to get online and declare my victory over the Great Firewall of China, in a Facebook status of course.
A little more research showed me that people living in China needing a quicker, more secure and anonymous way of ducking the censors can choose to buy access to an external VPN (virtual private network) for around $100 a year. A cost, sure, but not a big price to pay to ensure you aren't kept in the dark.
So, as it turns out, the Great Firewall of China isn't actually as grand as its namesake suggests, and easily scalable with the right tools. But if David's account is anything to go by, it suggests that the Chinese aren't actually that bothered by the blackout anyway. While some may work around the censorship, many just make do with what's available and what's allowed. It's odd for an outsider looking in, but then if you've never really had something, how can you know what you're missing out on?
Thankfully, and despite strict government regulations, there are a number of activist groups protesting to get the restrictions lifted in the hope that, one day, people in China will be able to freely access the internet and all the information it has to offer. Whether individuals choose to use it or not is, of course, then up to them.
Back on home soil, I gorged myself on news sites, browsed YouTube and Facebook at leisure and blogged to my heart's content. One thing's for certain - I'll never take my internet access for granted again.