Repression and Routers

Shi Tao was an editor with the Chinese publication Dungdai Shangba. He was a recently sentenced to 10 years in prison for communicating with foreigners via e-mail. His crime was “illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities,” a common charge in China used to suppress independent journalism. What makes Tao’s case particularly worrisome is that Tao was tracked down via his supposedly anonymous Yahoo e-mail account with the cooperation of Yahoo’s operations in China. Jerry Yang, one of the founders of Yahoo, as well as the entire corporation, has come under criticism in the Internet community for their cooperation. Yahoo’s defense is that they have no choice but to comply with the laws of the countries in which they operate.

Yahoo’s position is not courageous or noble, but it is hard to articulate a realistic alternative corporate position for Yahoo. The option of all major free e-mail suppliers like Yahoo, Google, and MSN pulling operations out of China would not seem viable. Even if these companies were willing to forgo such a lucrative market, many Chinese would be left with far fewer e-mail options and these would likely be even more controlled by the Chinese government

While it is clear that cooperation with the Chinese government’s efforts to intimidate journalists facilitates repression, there are other cases that are not so clear. Should, for example, Yahoo cooperate with the US government, presumably acting with court authorization, to track down e-mailers using Yahoo to conspire to commit a terrorist act? On one extreme, one would not want Yahoo to cooperate with Chinese repression of journalism and at the other extreme we would expect cooperation against terrorism. In the close cases, it might not be wise to have Yahoo or other corporations deciding when cooperation would be warranted. Perhaps, the best we could expect from Internet providers like Yahoo is that they provide tools to help maintain privacy. Perhaps, if they incorporated encryption by default in their e-mail services, they could do far more to protect personal liberty.

The old conventional wisdom was that political and economic liberties are inseparable. If a government tried to allow economic liberty to release market forces and to grow wealth, it would inevitably lead to the destruction of barriers protecting political repression. Modern, economically free societies require transparency and rapid communication. It is difficult to maintain political control under such circumstances. This conventional wisdom held that putting political censors between people, slows down communication and is incompatible with the rapid pace of modern economies. Perhaps, this conventional wisdom is being shattered by rapidly evolving technology.

China is on the forefront of marrying a modern economy with rigorous political orthodoxy. They are already using their control over the Internet infrastructure to block out political apostasy. If a user points a browser to a prohibited URL, the user receives a benign-appearing “File not found” message. It is difficult to distinguish between the suppression of free speech from ordinary network failures; censorship with a gentler, less aggravating face.

Up until this point, the level of political censorship was limited by the technical capacity to search for offending key words and to block offending IP addresses. To help in enforcement, China employs legions of Internet police. With a planned new upgrade in their communications infrastructure and a new generation of smart routers from Cisco and other manufactures, China is looking forward to a greater capacity for censorship. If censorship can be carried out efficiently at the router level, then perhaps it will be possible to have political censorship without slowing down the commercial communications necessary for a modern economy. Even more depressing, as manufacturers develop new censorship hardware for China, the technology will be available to others, less able to fund the development of such new capability, but certainly willing to employ it if available.

In the face of this development, perhaps there are some glimmers of hope. The personal interactions between people in and out of China, the travel incumbent in commercial societies, will inevitably expose the Chinese to the habits of free people. The willingness to question authority and a personal ease associated with knowing no one is listening over one’s shoulder with inevitably infect Chinese culture. Indeed perhaps, it is these same qualities that insure success in the market. The economic success of those who possess such a disposition may leak over into their political dispositions as well.

It is a race between improvements in censorship technology and the inherent need for freedom and openness, coupled with the evolution of technological counter measures. The winner is not yet clear.


Cherry, Steven, “The Net Effect,” IEEE Spectrum, 38-44, June, 2005.

Frank Monaldo — Please e-mail comments to

This page last updated on: 09/25/2005 19:55:57

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