* Jonathan Watts in Beijing, Bobbie Johnson in San Francisco and Ian Black
* guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 30 June 2009 20.59 BST
For the netizens of the world’s biggest online community, it was a rare victory. At the 11th hour, and with no proper explanation, the Chinese government, the most assiduous internet censor on the planet, engineered a sudden climbdown.
Instead of proceeding with plans to transform its notorious Great Firewall internet censor with new tools known as Green Dam, the authorities desisted. A terse statement ran on the Xinhua news agency. ‘China will delay the mandatory installation of the ‘Green Dam-Youth Escort’ filtering software on new computers.’
The plan to bundle the software into every new computer in China had provoked an unprecedented wave of online opposition, protests by foreign governments and calls by prominent bloggers for Chinese netizens to climb, attack and demonstrate against the ‘Great Firewall’. China insists the software is necessary to clear the Chinese web of ‘harmful content’. But critics say it is a misguided attempt to put the internet genie back in the bottle by a Communist party with about 300 million netizens to answer to.
But this was just a small victory in a larger war. The tools have been shelved temporarily, not scrapped. Wen Yuchao, a journalist and blogger who goes by the online name North Wind, cautioned against overoptimism. ‘I am happy at this news, but this is just an interim victory – we still have a long way to go in the struggle. It remains to be seen whether the authorities will press ahead.’
The mini-victory for advocates of internet freedom has a wider resonance in a world where internet censorship is becoming something of a fad. Dozens of countries deploy tactics to filter, block or choke off internet access for their citizens.
When the web was in its infancy, a nascent hope was kindled that the technology would help roll back authoritarianism. Two decades later, it often appears the reverse is true: that the authoritarians are rolling back the internet.
‘The internet is sort of becoming the most regulated communications medium in the world,’ said Dr Yaman Akdeniz, director of Cyber-rights.org.
‘It’s not just new laws that governments are developing to increase control, but they are relying heavily on technological solutions to filter and block access to a variety of content and tools such as web 2.0 applications like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.
‘In the mid-1990s there was the impression the internet would help create more democracy and openness and transparency. That was a delusion. The more the internet penetrated our lives, the more governments got concerned.’
Examples stand out almost every week. Last week, Kazakhstan introduced a new law to regulate forums, chats, blogs, and even online shops.
Last month, the German parliament voted through internet censorship architecture which, though aimed at child pornography, has aroused concern that it could be used to tackle other content.
Elsewhere, Turkey has blocked access to YouTube for more than a year. Several Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries maintain tight control over what websites are available.
In Guatemala, bloggers have reported websites being blocked, according to the Open Net Initiative, a collaborative partnership of leading experts advocating a free internet.
Iran has, moreover, offered a sobering study in how the authorities can turn censorship on and off like a tap. Filtering has become much heavier in the last fortnight. Some users have reported speeds of less than a tenth of normal operations.
‘The authorities are aware that almost every internet user knows how to get around the filtering and they don’t care much about it,’ said Mehrdad, a student. ‘But once there is a danger the internet may undermine the political system, they intensify censorship so it gets very difficult to get access to blocked websites even with anti-filter software.’
Crucially, all internet traffic in and out of Iran travels through one portal – the Telecommunications Company of Iran (TCI) – though a few service providers operate below it. This makes it easier to monitor traffic. Sophisticated software allows officials to look at a website or tweet and see the IP address it came from. Decisions on blocking are made by a committee of government officials, members of the judiciary and intelligence services. Filtering is done by the telecommunications ministry.
‘The authorities can filter a new website within 24 hours,’ said Mahmood Enayat, an Iranian expert at the Oxford Internet Institute. ‘They monitor very intensively.’
Another method used by the state is deliberately to reduce bandwidth to prevent the transmission of mobile phone-recorded video. Still, that did not stop the world seeing the now iconic 40-second film of Neda Soltan bleeding to death on a street in Tehran.
‘If you put 65 million people in a locked room, they’re going to find all the exits pretty quickly, and maybe make a few of their own,’ commented James Cowie on the Renesys internet intelligence blog.
The Chinese climbdown offers a first glimpse of the netizens hitting back. As late as yesterday afternoon, information ministry officials denied the software would be delayed, but the authorities have been struggling to meet their deadline to roll out the image and keyword filter, which blocks pornographic, violent and politically sensitive content and monitors behaviour.
The Guardian struggled to find retailers who were selling computers with Green Dam software. In Zhongguangcun, Beijing’s electronic retail heartland, shop staff said they had not received instructions. In the vast Buy Now computer market in the city centre, assistants said the software was not available or would not be included until next year.
It was unclear whether the reversal was an administrative failure or a change of heart in the government, which has been embarrassed by the backlash.
The US government called on China to abandon the plan. The European Chamber of Commerce co-signed a letter last week to prime minister Wen Jiabao that expressed concerns about the implications for internet security, trade and freedom of expression. But the fiercest opposition was online.
Isaac Mao, co-founder of the online Social Brain Foundation, believes the government made a mistake. ‘I think this is the tipping point between the people rising up and those in power trying to suppress them.
‘The Great Firewall is overloaded and that is why the authorities are trying to move the focus of control to the desktop. But it has annoyed a lot of people. Not just liberals who want free speech, but the young who see it as an intrusion into their personal lives.’
Numerous protests had been planned, including an internet boycott called by the prominent artist and freedom of expression champion Ai Weiwei.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the government will go ahead with Green Dam or a watered-down version of it.
But bloggers were positive about the long-term influence of the information technology evolution.
Michael Anti, an influential blogger, believes that netizens can still realise that original dream of the internet as a champion of free speech.
‘More and more people have accepted ‘internet-era values’ such as freedom of speech,’ he said. ‘In 10 years, more people will be netizenised, or liberalised, which will increase the chance of China having genuine democracy.’