Monday, November 23, 2009

Mobiles become target for China's firewall

Mobile phone users appear to have become the latest target as Chinese authorities tighten their grip on Internet browsing. In recent days owners of smartphones with the Opera Mini web browser installed have found themselves thwarted by a message appearing on their phone in both Chinese and English informing them that for a "better browsing experience" the Opera Mini China version needs to be installed. Effectively, users have no choice other than to use another web browser such as Internet Explorer. 

Opera Mini is a web browser designed primarily for mobile phones, but also for smartphones and personal digital assistants. It uses the Java ME platform and consequently requires that the mobile device be capable of running Java ME applications. Opera Mini is offered free of charge, supported through a partnership between its developer, the Opera Software company, and the search engine company Google. 

The browser has an advantage over some other mobile browsers in that it requests web pages through the Opera Software company's servers, which process and compress them before relaying the data back to the mobile phone. This compression process makes transfer time about two to three times faster. The pre-processing also smoothes compatibility with web pages not designed for mobile phones. Users may also find data charges reduced as a result, especially whilst roaming. The rerouting also circumvented the so-called Great Firewall of China thus enabling those with Opera Mini installed to log onto Facebook and other blocked sites.

Expats may be particularly angry at effectively being forced to download the Chinese version of Opera Mini. They may also question the safety of the software concerned, though there is as yet no indication it will track or monitor use. It will however provide a less rich browsing experience. According to reports the Chinese version does work without problems, despite the usual blocks of specific sites.

Opera for their part are the latest line of western companies to kowtow to Chinese demands in order to operate in China. Google, Yahoo and Microsoft have all submitted to Chinese demands to restrict searches. Yahoo have been criticised for handing data to Chinese authorities in the past, and both Google and Microsoft's Bing have limited searches at the behest of Chinese government censors. Skype, which provides a way for Internet users around the world to communicate directly by voice, video and text chat, now has a Chinese-language version developed and marketed in China by the Chinese company TOM Online. Skype executives have publicly acknowledged that the TOM-Skype software censors sensitive words in text chats, and have justified this as in keeping with local "best practices" and Chinese law. However Skype does not inform Chinese users of the specific details of its censorship policies, and does not inform them that their software contains censorship capabilities. Other western companies have also aided in helping construct the Golden Shield Project, known more commonly as the Great Firewall of the #GFW on Twitter. 

China has policed the Internet with assistance from US firms. Cisco Systems, for instance, supplied the original routers China used to monitor Internet traffic, though Cisco has said it did not tailor its equipment for the Chinese market. Juniper, an information technology and computer networking products company, is also said to have aided the Chinese in building the most sophisticated Internet censoring and monitoring infrastructure. Reporters Sans Frontieres alleges that Cisco is suspected of giving Chinese engineers training in how to use its products to censor the internet. Cisco strenuously denies the allegations, but as the US Council for Foreign Relations reported back in early 2008, "China relied on two US companies – Cisco Systems and Juniper Networks – to help carry out its network upgrade, known as CN2, in 2004. This upgrade significantly increased China's ability to monitor internet usage [although] Cisco has denied charges it adapted its equipment."

Cisco's Terry Alberstein, director of corporate affairs for the Asia Pacific region, said in 2005 that the company had never helped the Chinese government suppress free speech. "Cisco does not participate in any way in any censorship activities in the People's Republic of China," Alberstein said. "We have never custom-tailored our products for the China market, and the products that we sell in China are the same products we sell everywhere else."

In essence it may be true that Juniper, Cisco and other technology providers did not "custom-tailor" products for use in China. But it should perhaps have been clear that China and similar countries would use such equipment for Internet censorship and control. To say they have no responsibility is somewhat like weapons' dealers claiming they did not know they were arming terrorists or criminals. 

Mirroring routers, on which the Great Firewall is based, were sold at a time when Chinese authorities could not easily have produced the systems on their own. The likely use of the routers was well understood, and it should be obvious why selling them to a government which intends to monitor its citizens is different from selling them to some company that wants to monitor its on-the-clock employees. But whatever the merits of the argument back then, the entire question is now moot. The Chinese authorities could now buy the necessary routers from a variety of sources – notably from the homegrown firm Huawei, the largest networking and telecommunications equipment supplier in the People's Republic of China.

The list of companies complicit in helping support China's restrictive Internet policy grows year by year. Many say they are just protecting business interests and that they would lose an otherwise lucrative market. That may be so, but there is a moral as well as a financial factor that should not be ignored. Back in 2005 Cisco fought a shareholder action that urged the company to adopt a comprehensive human rights policy for its dealings with the Chinese government. At the time it was acknowledged that the resolution would not be binding on Cisco's executives. But Dawn Wolfe, a social research and advocacy analyst at the firm, which prides itself on its socially responsible investments, said the action sent "a strong message to management, and it gets across the sentiment of shareholders in a way that writing a letter can't do." Opera, Yahoo, Microsoft, Google and others should take note.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China


Anonymous said...

Opera Mini is so over. Disappointed and angry Opera users can switch to Bolt Browser: the uncensored mobile browser (at least for the time being).

Anonymous said...

Uh, the Bolt is blocked in China too asshat. So the bent to Chinas will before Opera did.

In case you didn't notice too, Firefox won't bypass the chinese firewall either.

Opera got away with it for a long time, providing Chinese with un-censored internet access when no other company/browser would.

Now Opera's proxies are blocked and they get a bad rap? Screw Firefox for not ever trying like Opera did.

Anonymous said...

Uh, the Bolt is blocked in China too asshat. So the bent to Chinas will before Opera did.

That's tremendous, I've never been called an asshat before. Great word. Pity about your poor spelling and punctuation, though!

Actually, Bolt is not blocked in China. I was using it to access both Facebook and YouTube earlier today. Bolt even has its own built-in video player, cool eh?

So I'm afraid you are totally wrong. Does that mean I can call you "asshat" too? Please?