The US government is testing a new technology in China that could soon give the country’s 300 million web users another way to access information blocked by the Chinese government’s filters.
The technology would pose yet another challenge to Beijing, which has been struggling to keep improper and violent materials, including pornography, away from its Internet users.
Earlier this week, Chinese officials announced they had abandoned plans to ensure that every computer sold in the country had the controversial Green Dam content-filtering software installed, after being criticized by the international business community and Internet users.
The “feed over email” (FOE) system being tested by the US would allow people living in China to access blocked information via encrypted news feeds sent to foreign email accounts.
The system will provide an easier channel to circumvent web filters, Ken Berman, head of IT at the US government’s Broadcasting Board of Governors, told China Daily on Friday.
Berman said the agency that runs Voice of America, a government-funded international broadcasting service, has been running trials of the new software for six months and expects it to be available for widespread use by the end of this year.
“This is just another way to help try to open the air waves,” said Berman.
“These things are only successful if there is a certain critical mass of people who use it,” said Berman. “This is hard to predict.”
The US government wants to send a message to countries applying strict control over the Internet that people have the right to access any information they want, that is why FOE is developed by the US government, said Pan Wei, a professor in Peking University’s School of International Studies.
“China should be confident enough to be transparent and take criticism. It’s about time China loosened its control over the Internet,” Pan said. “It actually damages China’s international image.”
Charles Mok, chairman of the Internet Society of Hong Kong, said: “It would probably be more ideal if civil society’s efforts within the community gathered resources to come up with a similar sort of implementation rather than being government driven.”
The government had already been losing its battle in monitoring the Net, regardless of the success of the new US technology, said Hu Yong, a founding director for China New Media Communication Association. “People could always find ways to bypass the system as technology develops.”
“Chinese netizens have been using proxy servers to access the information blocked by the government for a long time, FOE is just a more convenient tool,” Hu said.
“From a security perspective, this is nothing new,” said Thomas Parenty, a China-based IT security consultant and former US National Security Agency programmer.
The US seems to be basically trying to tackle the problem of getting past Internet filters by using encrypted email as the transport mechanism as opposed to using web proxies, which has been the traditional approach, he said.
Officials from the Internet affairs bureau of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology were not available on Friday to comment on the news.
Lots of people know how to use proxies to get around Internet blocks, said Jeremy Goldkorn, founder of the Chinese media monitoring website Danwei.org, which was blocked since July this year.
“It doesn’t make any difference to me if the US government has a new one. Of interest to me would be for the Chinese government is not to block (my website).”