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Just try surfing the Web in China. Seriously, here's how

October 28, 2008 |  4:54 pm

Hitech Forum in China

China might be excelling in the world economy, pioneering rainmaking technologies and scaring the rest of us by drumming perfectly in unison, but it's not very good at protecting its citizens' Web privacy. And that's been in the news a lot lately. For example, Microsoft is employing an anti-piracy tactic to blacken the computer screens of people using pirated Windows software. The blackout reappears every 60 minutes as a way of urging people to get the legitimate product.

Now, a Firefox add-on that lets users see what it's like to surf the Web in China is getting a lot of attention, spurred by blogs such as Gizmodo and Make Magazine. The browser add-on, called China Channel, re-routes your IP address through China, meaning you're subject to the same censorship as a Web user in China would be. Once you connect (and it might take a few tries if your workplace has a firewall), you'll see a message that says "Welcome to China!" inviting you to browse away.

A quick search on the China Channel found that a few obvious terms were banned: "banned words in China," as well as "Falun Gong" and "Epoch Times," the newspaper founded by Falun Gong practitioners. Try accessing those and you'll see a page that says, "Connection has timed out." Same thing if you try to visit the website Tibet Truth and a GigaOm page about China and Skype.

Surprisingly, the China page of Human Rights Watch was accessible, as was the Wikipedia entry about Tiananmen Square. China lifted a ban on sites about Tiananmen in advance of the Olympics.

"It's really important to spread knowledge about the censorship that's going on in the Internet right now" in China and all over the world, Tobias Leingruber, one of the creators of the China Channel, said in a video on his personal website. The goal of the project is to "get people to think about this and to talk about it" and hopefully change it, he said. In Germany, artists and developers protesting online censorship there in 2001 convinced the government to loosen some of the restrictions, he says.

Some tech companies are starting to think about ways to work in countries with repressive governments. The New York Times reported today that Google, Microsoft and Yahoo plan to introduce Wednesday a global code of conduct with the goal of protecting online speech against government intrusion. They're starting a Global Network Initiative that they say will commit them to minimizing the impact of government restrictions on freedom of speech, according to the article, which followed up a scoop by the San Francisco Chronicle.

The New York Times story, so far, was not blocked on the China Channel.

-- Alana Semuels

Photo: Women greet visitors to the Hitech Forum in China. Credit: Adrian Bradshaw / EPA

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