28 March 2007

Just as Granite Studio had figured out how to use the Blogspot ban workaround posted earlier, the Great Firewall goes and unblocks it. Obviously the Net Nanny is just trying to mess with J’s head. Still, the workaround is now applicable to Wordpress.com, which remains blocked.

Recently, I’ve been experiencing some bizarre access problems myself. For one 24 hour period, I lost access to Bloglines and Del.icio.us. Then yesterday and this morning, I had no access to Yahoo! Mail, Bloglines or, interestingly, ESWN. Perhaps a cable somewhere was unplugged. And within Bloglines, Global Voices Online and Virtual China always timed out - until I deleted saved posts on police corruption and 1940s Tibet, respectively. Perhaps there was a hiccup at a routing point somewhere. Some of it maybe tripping content filters, such as the GOV and Virtual China posts, but don’t seem like it. This all leads me to a bit of speculative paranoia: What if this wasn’t just a hiccup? Meanwhile, a colleague told me that they lost access in Shenzhen to Baidu.jp, which has been “under observation” ahem because it allows Chinese mainlanders to search for porn. More interestingly, Chinese users are driving the majority of traffic at Baidu.jp. Then, hours later, Baidu.jp was accessible in Shenzhen. Tech problem? Or something else?

For the Blogspot ban, there are two reasons I can think of why it suffered a brief ban. The first is that someone, somewhere on Blogspot posted something that someone, somewhere in the PRC found offensive, and a spank was applied. This seems unlikely, since the Nanny is quite capable of singling out a single blog. The best example of this is at the URL voyage.typepad.com: click “Letters From China”, which is located at /china, and you get blocked. Click “Saturday Night”, located at /saturdaynight, and there’s no problem.

The second, and more likely reason that Blogspot was banned is that when Google moved Blogspot out of Beta, it changed the root IP address. As a result, China sat up and took notice, and implemented a test run to ensure it could blanket ban Blogspot at the push of a button. The test was successful, and now the ban is lifted since they have that ability in place.

But a third possibility strikes me: if I were working on China’s Golden Shield (金盾工程) project, I wouldn’t be interested in having 30,000 Net Cops (an oft-repeated number that isn’t even proven to be true). No, I’d be interested in neural networks - software agents that learn and adapt based on new input, that would be able to examine large amounts of internet requests and identify particular users who often view questionable material (like me). Like Ren Jiadong and Huang Huiyu, who wrote a paper in 2004 entitled “基于人工神经网络的有害信息过滤智能决策系统: An Intelligent Decision-making System for Ill Healthy Information Filtering Based on Artificial Neural Networks”. The abstract says that in tests their neural network was quick and highly accurate in filtering “evil information”. And moreover, I’d test different approaches and software in different provinces and ISPs - not unlike how economic and political reforms have been carried out in China.

So are random hiccups in the system the work of experimental software agents doing “smart” censorship? Hell if I know. But I’d bet good money that the Chinese government has quite a few people working on such tools, and one day they will be deployed.

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