China’s Big Internet Mistake

A few years ago I was employed installing and configuring content filters in a hospital in the United Kingdom. It was being installed after a report showed that loads of the staff spent a large part of the working day messing around on the internet and accessing rather unsuitable material. They decided to be rather aggressive in the configuration blocking many categories of sites and setting the filters to a very high level.

It didn’t last long.

The problem is that although content filters can be quite effective at blocking sites, they are actually pretty rubbish in deciding what should be blocked. The helpdesk of this hospital was soon swamped with calls asking why they were being blocked from different sites. Some of the issues –

Medical sites being blocked because the pages had too many flesh coloured pixels (filter thought they were pornography) – see here for details.

Access to a page on a surgeons site blocked, because the word ‘tramp’ was used. It actually was the discussion of an autopsy of a tramp who had died.

There were many, many more – lots of completely harmless sites blocked because of some word, link or picture being deemed unsuitable due to the content filter. Needless to say they simply didn’t have the resources to deal with these issues and the filter was turned down significantly.

It highlights a problem that is beginning to affect China, in the modern world many people need the internet to do their job. If you restrict access then you put yourselves at a significant disadvantage.

A perfect example is from this article in the Wall Street Journal, where a Swedish businessman was having problems trying to copy back some files to his headquarters servers.  Every time he tried his internet connection went down for an hour or so. The mystery was solved when it was discovered that the files were named after the town of Falun where the client worked. Unfortunately it is also the name of a meditation group РFalung Gong which is banned by the Chinese Government and thus blocked by the Chinese firewall. When the files were renamed they could be transferred without any problems.

The Swedish businessman in the story got so fed up with the constant internet difficulties that he moved his business to Thailand were he could operate without restrictions (although it should be said that Thailand also censors the internet to some extent).

This is the crux of the problem China faces – it wants to control and restrict access to the internet, yet it needs and demands a high level of economic growth. They are to some extent mutually exclusive, businesses need the internet to operate globally – a highly restrictive internet policy is a huge disadvantage to companies operating there. The reality is that they will simply move elsewhere, the digital world means where you locate a business is not as important. Businesses need fast, reliable internet access – in China the Great Firewall ensure they have neither.

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