Chinese Internet Freedom in a

Chinese Internet Freedom in a Comparative Perspective

Select Findings from Freedom House’s 2009 Freedom on the Net Index

By Karin Deutsch Karlekar and Sarah G. Cook1

Submission prepared for 7th Chinese Internet Research Conference
Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania, May 27-29, 2009


Over the past generation, the influence of internet-based communications as a means of disseminating news and information has steadily expanded worldwide. The internet has become the principal alternative and challenger to media hegemony in systems where media control has been the standard, as well as a vital tool for mobilization for civil society around the world. Fearing the power of these new technologies, however, governments have responded with subtle and not-so-subtle measures to control, regulate, and censor the content of blogs, websites, and text messages.
China, with the world’s largest population of internet users-300 million at the beginning of 2009-has not escaped such global dynamics. Rather, as has been documented in media reports, analysis by human rights groups, and personal testimonies of ordinary users, China’s government is among those to have taken measures to block internet content and imprison individuals for their online activities, while Chinese users have shown incredible creativity in seeking to circumvent such controls. Given the diversity, complexity, and sheer size of the online environment in China, however, analysis on these issues has often concentrated on the Chinese internet itself, with less focus on a broader comparative perspective of the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) and government control over them. This paper seeks to fill this gap by drawing on the findings of a recently released pilot study by Freedom House of internet and digital media in 15 strategically important countries-Freedom on the Net.
In order to better respond to emerging challenges to internet freedom, it is first essential to have a clearer diagnosis of the issues at hand and situation on the ground. For these reasons, Freedom House embarked over the course of 2008 on an effort to develop the first comprehensive, comparative, and numerically based set of indicators for monitoring and analyzing internet freedom, as well as the use of other ICTs, such as mobile telephones, that are commonly used to disseminate news and information. On the basis of this newly developed set of 19 indicators, the status of internet and digital media freedom was examined in an initial group of 15 countries across six regions: China, India, and Malaysia in Asia; Cuba and Brazil in Latin America; Egypt, Tunisia, and Iran in the Middle East and North Africa; Kenya and South Africa in Sub-Saharan Africa; Russia, Estonia, and Georgia in the Former Soviet Union; and the UK and Turkey in Europe.2 The findings of the pilot study thus allow a unique opportunity to compare China’s degree of internet freedom not only with that of other developing or authoritarian countries, but also with established, wealthy democracies.
This paper will be divided into three sections: an introduction to the methodology and indicators used to assess ICT freedom in the study; a brief review of the numerical findings on China, including a comparison between the digital media and traditional media environments in the country; and the placement of these findings within a larger comparative lens. In particular, regarding the latter aspect, this paper will address questions such as: in what ways is the Chinese internet freer than elsewhere? In what ways is it less free? What are the differing contributions of the state versus societal actors to internet freedom in China? How are the obstacles facing internet users in China similar or different to those facing their counterparts in other countries and regions? In a concluding section, the essay will consider areas of vulnerability or promise in the future trajectory of internet freedom in China, as well as a brief reflection on avenues for further researcher, particularly in terms of the regional implications of the study’s findings.


Despite efforts by press freedom organizations to track attacks against bloggers, as well as rigorous and technically based studies of internet filtering by the Open Net Initiative,3 to date no systematic, comprehensive, and numerical analytical tool had been designed to assess internet freedom. In seeking to fill this gap, Freedom House convened a number of experts with knowledge of various aspects of digital media, including filtering technologies and other forms of censorship, domestic and global internet governance standards, the relationship between democracy and technology, and a diversity of expertise on new media in different geographic regions of the world.4 Particular attention was paid to capturing the full range of legal, political, and economic factors that might affect digital media freedom. Through multiple rounds of consultations and discussion, a set of 19 indicators was created.
In seeking to define the various elements of internet and digital media freedom, the committee sought to avoid a culture-bound view of freedom and rather, to ground the methodology in basic standards of free expression, derived in large measure from Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Given Freedom House’s areas of expertise and the growing importance of digital media to political life, the index is particularly concerned with the transmission and exchange of news and other politically relevant communications, as well as the protection of users’ rights to privacy and freedom from both legal and extralegal repercussions arising from their online activities. Nevertheless, the index acknowledges that in some instances freedom of expression and access to information may be legitimately restricted. Following the recommendations of academic writing on these issues, such as those by Derek Bambauer5, the standard for such restrictions applied in the methodology is that they be implemented only in narrowly defined circumstances and in line with international human rights standards, the rule of law, and the principles of necessity, and proportionality. More specifically, the standard applied in assessing censorship and surveillance policies and procedures is that they should be transparent, include avenues for appeal available to those affected, and involve public consultation in their definition.
Though government policies and actions are a clear factor affecting the degree of digital media freedom in a country, the index does not solely rate governments or government performance per se, but rather the real-world rights and freedoms enjoyed by individuals within each country. In addition to state actions, pressures and attacks by nonstate actors (including insurgents, other armed groups, and private corporations) are also considered. More positively, “push back” indicators that seek to evaluate the vibrancy, diversity, and activism of the ICT domain in a country are also included, regardless-or in spite of-state efforts to restrict usage. While a primary focus is on political communication, the use of technology for broader social mobilization, as well as by minorities, is also evaluated. Thus, the index assessments generally aim to reflect the interplay of a variety of actors, both governmental and nongovernmental, within a particular country’s geographic boundaries.
The overall methodology seeks to capture the entire “enabling environment” for digital media freedom within each country through a set of 19 questions and 90 subquestions, divided into three distinct categories6:

* Obstacles to Access-assesses infrastructural and economic barriers to access, including illiteracy, geography, poverty, and degree of broadband availability; governmental efforts to block access to specific technologies or advanced applications such as video-sharing, blog hosting, or social networking protocols; and legal and ownership control over internet and mobile phone access providers, including the degree of independence of relevant regulatory bodies.
* Limits on Content-assesses filtering and blocking of websites; other forms of censorship and prevalence of self-censorship; proactive government manipulation of content; the diversity of online news media, in some cases, despite government efforts to restrict the circulation of certain content; and usage of digital media for social and political activism.
* Violations of User Rights-assesses the legal environment as it relates to online activity, including both protections and restrictions in existing legislation; surveillance and other privacy violations; the “outsourcing” of censorship and surveillance tasks to private service providers; and repercussions for online activity, such as prosecution, imprisonment, physical attacks, and other forms of harassment.

For every country evaluated, each individual question is scored on a varying range of numerical points, thereby allowing for comparative analysis among the countries surveyed and facilitating future examination of trends over time. Individual scores are then summed such that each country receives a total score ranging from 0 (best) to 100 (worst), as well as a score for each of the three main categories. These scores are also then used to determine a country’s overall classification as “Free,” “Partly Free,” or “Not Free.” Countries scoring from 0 to 30 points overall are regarded as having a “Free” internet and digital media environment; 31 to 60, “Partly Free”; and 61 to 100, “Not Free.” Numerical evaluations are then accompanied by a narrative report providing detailed assessments of the issues covered by the methodology questions.
The first effort to apply the above methodology was in a pilot study conducted by Freedom House and released to the public on April 1, 2009. The pilot study covered events that took place during the calendar years of 2007 and 2008 in 15 strategic countries. The countries were chosen on the basis of applying the methodology to an initial representative sample of countries with geographical and regional diversity, different stages of economic development, and varying levels of digital media freedom, traditional media freedom, and democratic consolidation. A multi-stage approach was taken in carrying out the evaluation, by which initial assessments were done by expert country analysts, most from within the country or region being studied. In carrying out their research, analysts drew on a range of sources, including first hand experience, field tests, interviews with relevant actors within the country and publicly available information in the local language. Also referenced were resources from civil society initiatives such as technical filtering tests by the Open Net Initiative, the International Telecommunications Union, alerts by local and international press freedom watchdogs, and documentation of blogosphere commentary via the Global Voices network. Proposed scores and draft narrative reports were then reviewed by academic advisors with relevant expertise and Freedom House staff in a series of collective meetings and private consultations.

General Findings and Trends

The core finding of the 15-country pilot study Freedom on the Net was a clear trend of increasing digital media use worldwide being accompanied by more systematic and sophisticated methods of control. Access to and usage of internet and mobile-phone technologies have grown exponentially in recent years. In six of the countries examined internet penetration doubled between 2006 and 2008 (see Figure 1), and in three, mobile-phone penetration doubled. This greatly expanded access, however, has been met in most cases with the clear emergence of new and multiple threats to other aspects of internet freedom, particularly restrictions on certain content or heightened prosecution and surveillance of users. Moreover, the diversity and sophistication of threats appears to be growing.
The dynamics of digital media freedom in China epitomize such a paradoxical pattern. Although China is home to the largest population of internet users in the world-300 million at the beginning of 2009, nearly a fifteen-fold increase since 2001-this growth in access to technology has been accompanied by the largest diversity of threats facing internet freedom among the countries examined in the study. Indeed, the country’s rulers employ one of the world’s most sophisticated, multi-layered, and wide-ranging systems for subverting free expression via the internet and mobile telephones. This system has, moreover, been enhanced in recent years with new attempts to manipulate online discussion. Such an apparatus contributes to a broader media environment in which the country’s citizens have only a limited ability to access and circulate information that is vital to their well-being and the country’s future direction.
In terms of numerical findings, China received an overall score of 78, placing it in the “Not Free” status category (see Figure 2). Although China scored poorly across all three main categories, performance in the “Obstacles to Access” section was marginally better than in the other two categories, receiving 18 of 25 points. This was due primarily to the relatively high availability of internet and mobile phone access whose infrastructural expansion has been part of the leadership’s policy of promoting economic modernization and growth. In the “Limits on Content” category, China scored a 27 out of a possible 35 points. While this poor score mostly reflected the strength of the censorship apparatus in place, aiding the country’s performance in this category was the “push back” factor from societal actors and the degree to which they have been able to take advantage of the egalitarian nature and technical flexibility of the internet to advance free expression. With respect to “Violations of User Rights,” China tied Cuba with a score of 33 out of a possible 40 points; the worst performers in the study. This was due to the combination of a harsh legal environment, a high number of prosecutions and long prison terms handed down for online activities, pervasive surveillance, and increasing extralegal assaults on users.

Figure 2: A green-colored bar represents a status of “Free,” a yellow-colored one, the status of “Partly Free,” and a purple-colored one, the status of “Not Free” on the Freedom of the Net Index.
Regarding the relationship between the three categories, China fit into the typology of performance across all three aspects being approximately at the same level. Others in this typology were “Not Free” status countries such as Iran and Tunisia, as well as better performers like Estonia, which scored well across the board. Two additional typologies by category also emerged from the study. One reflected particularly weak performance on access to technology, and applied to several developing countries with relatively low per capita income but higher degrees of political freedom, like India, Kenya, and South Africa. Also falling into this group was Cuba, which received the worst possible score in the Obstacles to Access category. The third, and perhaps most analytically insightful, typology was a collection of states which featured a particularly high degree of violations of user rights, but otherwise relatively few obstacles to access or limits on content. This imbalance was most noticeable in the cases of Russia, Egypt, and Malaysia, but also evident among better performers such as the United Kingdom and Brazil.

Digital media versus traditional media freedom

Both anecdotal evidence and several recent academic studies have indicated that the internet is freer than the traditional media environment in China,7 as well as in other countries. Freedom House’s findings in the Freedom on the Net pilot study confirmed this assertion, while offering additional insight into the degree of difference between old and new media across countries. Thus, every country examined-with the exception of the United Kingdom-performed better on internet freedom than on media freedom in general, as measured by Freedom House’s annual Freedom of the Press index, primarily covering traditional forms of broadcast and print media.8
The margin of difference between the two media environments was not equal across countries, however. Thus, while in some countries – particularly those with “Partly Free” status – internet freedom was found to be significantly freer than press freedom, in China and other “Not Free” status countries, the difference was less dramatic than might have been expected (see Figures 3 and 4). In China, key factors contributing to the marginal relative openness of digital over traditional media were infrastructural access to the technologies and the “push back” from societal actors using ICTs to expand the circulation of information. The additional openness thus did not appear to be the result of a deliberate government policy to allow the internet to be a bastion of relatively free expression in an otherwise controlled media environment, as was the case in countries such as Egypt, Malaysia, and Russia. On the contrary, the study’s findings point to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) doing its utmost to control and guide online expression, particularly on topics deemed to undermine its popular legitimacy or monopoly on political power. Moreover, though numerical support is not available, the qualitative analysis in the study would indicate that had a similar numerical assessment been carried out on China two to four years ago, the margin between internet and traditional media would likely have been greater, as new layers of control to digital media have recently been added. Indeed, several developments in early 2009 indicate that this distance might close even further in coming years.
Figures 3 & 4: The left-hand bar represents a country’s Freedom on the Net total score; the right-hand bar reflects the country’s total score on Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press 2008 index, which primarily assesses television, radio, print media.
Thematic Comparison

Beyond the comparison between digital and traditional media, the findings of Freedom on the Net enable a broader discussion of how the situation in China compares to other countries on a wide range of indicators. The following section of this paper will examine this dimension of analysis, addressing the various thematic indicators in each of the three main methodological categories – Obstacles to Access, Limits on Content, and Violations of User Rights.

Obstacles to Access

This category covered three main elements – infrastructural and economic barriers to access; government and regulatory restrictions on access; and the blocking of advanced applications. Overall, China’s score in this category was an 18 of 25, better than the three other “Not Free” status countries, but five points poorer than the next country.

Infrastructural and economic barriers to access

Realizing the potential contributions of the internet and other ICTs to economic modernization and growth, the Chinese leadership has encouraged the expansion of the necessary infrastructure for increased internet and mobile phone penetration. This has led to exponential growth over the past decade, bringing China to have the largest number of both internet (298 million9) and mobile phone (633 million10) users in the world at the end of 2008. Broadband access is fairly widespread and access to the internet via mobile phones has also increased in recent years.11 Observers have attributed the increase in both the overall internet population and the number of mobile internet users in part to a gradual decrease in the cost of broadband and mobile-phone access in recent years.
China was thus among five developing countries in the pilot sample-along with Egypt, Brazil, Malaysia, and Turkey-in which the government had made a decision to proactively promote broader or cheaper access.12 As such, China scored relatively well on these indicators, surpassing Cuba, Georgia, Kenya, India, and Tunisia, though still falling behind more developed countries like the United Kingdom and Estonia. In Cuba, in particular, inadequate infrastructure and prohibitively high government-imposed pricing stand as insuperable obstacles to expanded internet access. Nevertheless, low computer literacy and a rural-urban gap remain key challenges. Indeed, on the latter point, it was found that rural users in China accounted for only 28 percent of total internet users, though mobile phone access was comparatively more widespread outside urban areas.13 It was also found that Chinese users benefited from the unified written language across the country and by millions beyond its borders, whereas in several other countries, such as India and Malaysia, the dominant online language was English, placing some content beyond the reach of lower socio-economic segments of society.

Government-imposed and regulatory restrictions on access

Despite similar policies of promoting better infrastructure and in some cases, comparable levels of penetration, China, nevertheless, scored worse overall in the Obstacles to Access section when compared with Egypt, Brazil, Malaysia, and Turkey because of greater government-imposed and regulatory restrictions on access. In particular, while expanding China’s telecom infrastructure, the government has simultaneously taken steps to maintain control over users’ access to the technology, in some cases building into the network particular elements enabling control. This has manifested in three specific ways: centralizing the backbone of the network; controlling licensing for service providers; and sporadic, specific shutdowns.
Although internet access is no longer monopolized by China Telecom and recent waves of reform have decentralized ownership of internet-service providers (ISPs), the government’s willingness to liberalize the ISP market has in part been because of a higher-level centralization of the country’s connection to the international internet. This connection is controlled by six to eight state-run operators that maintain advanced international gateways in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou,14 and to which all ISPs are required to connect. This arrangement remains the primary infrastructural limitation on open internet access in the country, essentially creating a national intranet, giving the authorities the ability to cut off any cross-border information requests that are deemed undesirable, while facilitating the use of systemic monitoring and filtering programs. Within the pilot sample of countries, such a centralization of backbone access was not unique to China, but was found to exist also in Iran and Tunisia. There it has been achieved via legislation forcing all ISPs to obtain a license from the government and purchase bandwidth from a government-controlled provider.
In addition to centralization of the internet backbone, licensing and restrictions on providers in China enable government control internet access and content. A license from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) is required to establish an ISP or host a website within China. Although initial approval has recently become easier to obtain than in the past, the ministry maintains the authority to revoke the license of any ISP that fails to comply with its regulations and orders and had been known to do so.15 By contrast, in Egypt and Malaysia, although the regulatory authorities are also government-run and could potentially be used as a means of exercising political control over service providers, there have as yet been no reported incidents of ISPs being denied registration permits. In more democratic developing countries, such as Brazil and India, there exists an independent telecom regulatory body, as well as mechanisms for public consultations and civil society participation in internet governance decisions. In addition to ISPs, the Chinese authorities have also sought to exercise tight control over cybercafés. This is implemented via a licensing system managed by the Ministry of Culture whose regulation has been stepped up in recent years. In 2003, the Ministry ordered that cybercafés must be operated as chain stores,16 and since March 2007 it has indefinitely suspended the issuance of new licenses (there were 113,000 cybercafes in existence at the time).17 These measures have been particularly detrimental to Chinese users’ ability to access the internet as an estimated 40 percent of them access the technology through cybercafes, particularly those with lower incomes.18 The only other country from the pilot study known to have imposed a freeze on new applications for cybercafés during the coverage period was Malaysia, which lifted the ban in January 2008 after 38 months.
During specific events, the Chinese authorities were also found to impose temporary shutdowns on access to ICTs in particular geographic locations or over certain portions of the internet. Thus, during the summer and fall of 2007, prior to the 17th Party Congress, the authorities carried out a widespread shutdown of data centers housing servers for websites, online bulletin boards, and comment forums, affecting millions of users.19 Similarly, following unrest in Tibet in March 2008, the government attempted to control the flow of information to and from the region, disrupting mobile-phone service there.20 The Iranian government has been known to engage in similar activities, taking advantage of its position as the sole provider of mobile-phone services to cut off access to prevent the circulation of particular political information or prevent the organization of demonstrations.21 Iran also stood out among the countries studied for its decision since 2006 to systematically limit broadband access for a majority of internet users. As such Iran, along with Cuba, performed worse than China on the relevant indicators, as the Cuban authorities have largely cut the population from internet access altogether and only recently relaxed restrictions on mobile-phone ownership. In Tunisia and Malaysia, the authorities have limited shut downs to specific activists or members of the political opposition, cutting off the individual’s private connection to the internet or mobile phone network.

Restricting access to applications

Regarding specific applications, China was one of seven countries that had blocked so-called Web 2.0 applications-advanced services such as the social-networking site Facebook, the video-sharing site YouTube, and the blog-hosting site Blogspot-either temporarily or permanently during the 2007-08 coverage period. Such sites for hosting and circulating user-generated content have come under increasing pressure as governments discover that via these multimedia protocols, users are able to circulate information, and especially images, in a manner that circumvents the editorial filters many governments have traditionally had control over. Throughout the coverage period, YouTube, overseas blogging platforms like WordPress and Blogspot, and Facebook could not be accessed reliably in China, while the e-mail services Gmail and Hotmail were frequently jammed. Other countries similarly blocking user access to such applications included both repressive governments like Iran and Tunisia, as well as relatively more democratic ones like Brazil and Turkey, where judicial and regulatory bodies ordered that access be blocked.
While in some countries these websites were simply blocked, in China the dynamics at play were found to be more complex. While the international versions of such applications are generally blocked in China, they have often been replaced by domestic alternatives, allowing users to still share videos or maintain blogs. However, as Chinese companies are more susceptible to government pressure and censorship directives than their foreign counterparts, such a replacement dynamic essentially serves as a means of exercising greater control over content, thereby infringing upon users’ freedom. This arrangement was evident during the coverage period when in 2007, the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT), which oversees audiovisual content on the internet, ordered that all video-sharing websites must be state owned, except for several large examples that had already become influential.22 The latter were instead shut down temporarily in 2008 for “self-inspection” to ensure that adequate content controls were in place.23 In other instances where international applications remain available, as with some search engines and Skype Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), the foreign corporations in question have agreed to alter their services and implement monitoring and censorship of political content in order to gain access to the large Chinese market.24
Another difference with other countries in the study was the degree to which circumvention of the block was feasible. In Turkey, where YouTube was repeatedly blocked throughout the coverage period, most recently since May 2008, the comparatively freer internet and media environment facilitated circumvention. Each time a new order was issued blocking a popular website, a large number of articles were published online and in print to instruct users on how to access the banned websites. This phenomenon was reflected by the fact that YouTube was still the 16th-most-accessed site in Turkey almost three months after the latest blocking order was issued.25 In China, by contrast, major circumvention websites like and have also been blocked, while more sophisticated tools like Freegate and TOR are closely monitored and frequently attacked by the authorities. Although many web-savvy Chinese are able to bypass even these blocks, circumvention is not nearly as widespread as in Turkey, in part because online censorship is among the taboo coverage topics outlined by the government.

Limits on Content:

This category covered three main elements – filtering and other forms of state-driven censorship; proactive content manipulation; and the diversity of available information along with the degree of civic activism. Overall, China’s score in this category was a 27, tied with Tunisia and only ahead of Cuba, where the overall lack of access to the technology itself and extremely low connection speeds were the primary hindrance on users ability to adequately access certain content.

Filtering and state-driven censorship

Of the 15 countries in the study, only three-China, Iran, and Tunisia-were found to filter political content using systematic technical means.26 In these countries, there is pervasive filtering of permanently taboo topics, including those related to human rights violations, prominent political figures, oppressed minorities, and official corruption. Proscribed content is identified through lists of forbidden keywords or website addresses, and the lists are often updated by state agencies based on real-world developments. Among the three countries, however, the apparatus employed by the Chinese authorities was found to be the most multi-layered and sophisticated.
The CCP’s internet control strategy consists of four different techniques: technical filtering, prepublication censorship, postpublication censorship, and proactive manipulation. Restricting access to foreign websites was a key component of technical filtering, enabled by the channeling of all internet traffic through the gateway operators described above. Among the websites that are systematically blocked are those of political parties in Taiwan or groups supporting greater freedom for religious and ethnic minorities, human rights organizations, international news outlets, and overseas dissident publications. Comparable patterns of blocking were found in Iran and Tunisia, although the latter allowed access to overseas news outlets. Illustrating the wider reach of the Chinese apparatus was the implementation of filtering by keyword in both instant-messaging services, such as Tom-Skype and QQ, as well as in mobile phone text-messaging.27 China’s government was the only one among the 15 studied to take such a measure.
Other forms of censorship employed by the authorities are prepublication and postpublication removal of content deemed undesirable. Prepublication censorship is enforced using a list of taboo topics, which Chinese government bodies issue almost on a daily basis as circumstances require. In recent years, such lists have also been accompanied by specific instructions on how to treat the proscribed topics, such as not placing certain content in an important position on a homepage, not allowing it to appear in blog entries and comment forums, or not reprinting items from foreign news sources. No other country in the sample employed this method as systematically, with Iran and Tunisia relying on broader permanent prohibitions and self-censorship by private actors. In addition to the multiple layers censorship, another element that set the apparatus employed by the Chinese authorities apart from that used in other countries was the large number of government agencies involved in internet control, at both the local and national level (see Figure 5). In comparison with other countries, Egypt and Malaysia stood out for having engaged in little or no blocking or removal of content. Indeed in Malaysia, several pieces of legislation carry provisions explicitly stating that they not be construed as permitting any form of internet censorship.
Postpublication censorship, applied to information that has already been posted, can take a number of forms. Individual blog entries may be deleted, in most instances within 24 to 48 hours of their posting or entire blogs may be shut down by service providers, as has occurred with several well-known bloggers in recent years.28 Such phenomena were also found to exist in Tunisia, while in Russia, a more ad-hoc mechanism of censorship was in place. This took the form of security agencies, Kremlin representatives, or regional administrative officials exerting pressure by telephone on website owners to remove unwanted material, a “behind the scenes” practice that was reportedly quite widespread.
Figure 5: State Agencies Involved in Internet Control in China29

“Outsourcing” of censorship to private companies

A key aspect of digital freedom that emerged during the study as differing from restrictions on traditional media was the degree to which governments enforced censorship policies via private intermediaries. This was largely a result of the nature of digital media content as it can be disseminated by any user rather than going through a particular editorial filter, which is often the focus of government control for traditional media. As such, every country assessed in the study was found to engage in some level of “outsourcing” to nongovernmental access providers, be they ISPs, cybercafés, or mobile-phone operators. In China and other authoritarian regimes-such as Tunisia, Cuba, and Iran-the outsourcing involved legal requirements for the filtering of political content and sanctions such as the loss of business licenses for entities that failed to comply with regulations. These private entities often had significant numbers of staff members assigned to implement these tasks, which imposed an additional cost on their businesses. In China, in particular, it was found that most postings on blogs, comment sections of news items, and bulletin board system (BBS) discussions that are deemed objectionable are deleted at this stage. Tests conducted thus found that entries containing sensitive keywords such as “June 4,” “Falun Gong,” or “Dalai Lama” could not be displayed on Chinese blog hosting services, including the simplified Chinese version of Microsoft’s MSN Space Live service and Skype’s Chinese version, Tom. At the same time, however, a more extensive academic study found that while this practice was common, implementation was nonetheless inconsistent across blog hosting companies, and some potentially sensitive discussions did take place, indicating a tendency among private actors to resist government orders.30 In another example of “outsourcing,” since e-mail messages circulated within the country cannot be filtered at the international gateways, service providers have been pressured to carry out their own censorship; many have reportedly complied, including the popular Sohu and QQ. In these three countries in particular, international technology companies have also complied with the local, illiberal, and antidemocratic regulations. In contrast to these “Not Free” environments, among strong and mid-range performers in the pilot sample, “outsourcing” took the form of legislation requiring retention of user data, interception powers for law enforcement agencies (often with some judicial oversight), or filtering of content, although the targeted material did not involve political communication in these relatively free settings.

Content manipulation

Despite sophisticated filtering technology and censorship methods, it is effectively impossible to create an airtight “firewall” against all content deemed undesirable by the government. Thus, authoritarian regimes have increasingly resorted to guiding or influencing online discussion through the clandestine use of paid progovernment commentators or the financing of entire websites and blogs. The CCP has been at the forefront of implementing and exploring the effect of this strategy. Since 2005, paid web commentators known as “50 Cent Party” members or “Red Vests” have been recruited by the Chinese authorities to post progovernment remarks, lead online discussions along the party line, and report users who have posted offending statements. Some estimates place the number of these commentators at over 250,000. In other instances, such as the 2008 unrest in Tibet, censorship of unofficial accounts or deletion of critical comments has been combined with the required posting of the Xinhua news agency’s articles, which enables the official version to dominate public discourse.
Two other countries from the sample in which governments were found to have engaged in similar actions were Tunisia and Russia. In Tunisia, a number of undercover agents are also employed to subvert online conversations that might erode support for the regime. Their numbers are significantly smaller than their Chinese counterparts, however, if only because the population of active bloggers in the country numbers several hundred rather than several million. Similarly, the authorities have strongly encouraged, though not forced, online news portals to obtain their articles from Tunisia Africa Press, the official news agency.. In Russia, recent years have seen a proliferation of Kremlin-affiliated “content providers” that are essentially progovernment propaganda sites established to collectively dominate search results and creating confusion among users by adopting similar imagery, slogans, and names of opposition or grassroots organizations. In other environments, manipulation of the online sphere was more mild or indirect, reflected in countries like Egypt or Georgia mostly in terms of the “leakage” of the dominance of state-run media outlets into a relatively central position as online sources of information.

Civic activism

Despite the multiple layers of control at work in China, the internet has emerged in recent years as a primary source of news and a forum for discussion for many Chinese, particularly among the younger generation. Indeed, a recent academic study estimated that there were approximately 72 million blogs in China at the end of 2007, along with nearly 17 million “active” bloggers updating their websites a minimum of one time per month. 31 Chinese cyberspace has thus grown into a dynamic environment, replete with online auctions, social networks, homemade music videos, a large virtual gaming population, and spirited discussion of some social and political issues.
A particularly interesting phenomenon that emerged in the China analysis was the distinction between the online public sphere versus less public means of using ICTs to more directly challenge Communist Party rule or sensitive government policies. In the former, information circulated included either content deemed acceptable by the authorities or a range of occasions in which users were able to “sneak” less desirable conversations past the censors. Thus, on the one hand, civil society organizations involved in education, health care, and other social and cultural issues that are deemed acceptable by the authorities often have an online presence. ICTs played a particularly prominent role in the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake in May 2008, as people on the ground transmitted updates via Twitter and BBS comments, netizens created personalized videos and memorials, blogs became a platform for public sharing of memories, and millions of dollars were donated toward relief efforts via websites.32 There were also several cases in 2008 of internet users revealing acts of corruption by local officials, leading to their dismissal.33 On the other hand, for discussions of more political topics, netizens often make creative use of asterisks, code words, or homophones to replace potentially sensitive keywords. For example, censorship is referred to as “harmonization,” and the 1989 massacre in Beijing, which involved the use of tanks, is described as “tractors coming into the city.” 34 In addition, many well-educated and web-savvy Chinese have also been able to bypass the government’s control using a variety of technical circumvention tools. These individuals can thus obtain more information from overseas sources than the average citizen, and can act as opinion leaders in online discussions, particularly if they have knowledge of a foreign language. From this perspective, blogs and other internet platforms remain more likely than traditional media to contain criticism of the government and a broad spectrum of views.
In spite of the booming internet population and the skyrocketing number of websites, however, fully independent civil society, ethnic, and religious organizations remain underrepresented in the public online sphere, but have nonetheless been able to use some ICTs to advance their causes. Thus, there was also found to be a different set of “conversations” taking place, as Chinese users made use of ICTs to mobilize in “real life” or circulate more sensitive information. For example, in the southern city of Xiamen in 2007, bloggers supported large-scale street protests that eventually succeeded in terminating the construction of a chemical factory nearby, while SMS was employed to circulate epidemic information during the SARS outbreak in 2003. 35 A loose network of lawyers, legal academics, and activists known as the weiquan or “rights defense” movement has used internet, e-mail, VoIP, and mobile-phone technology to circulate and publish open letters, document accounts of abuse, and organize a 2006 national relay hunger strike for human rights. More recently, in December 2008, a broad coalition of 300 such individuals issued a bold manifesto dubbed Charter 08, which called for significant political reforms including multiparty democracy, a free press, and an independent judiciary. Though the government suppressed broad public discussion of the proposal online, the initiative did circulate to a limited audience, garnering an additional 7,000 signatures.36 Similarly, after being driven underground by a violent persecutory campaign, adherents of the Falun Gong spiritual practice have made use of the internet and mobile phones to maintain contact with one another, communicate with overseas practitioners, send documentation of torture abroad, and download censored information for the purposes of producing offline leaflets and DVDs that expose rights violations and call party propaganda into question. Other banned information circulated in a similar manner includes news summaries from rights groups based outside the country, instructions for using anticensorship technology, and copies of banned publications like the Nine Commentaries, a series of editorials analyzing the history of the party and encouraging an end to its rule.37
Though not a direct similarity, such a split dynamic of ICT use was also evident in Cuba, where there were incidents of artists mobilizing via the intranet to protest a particular television program, forcing the Culture Minister to issue an apology. At the same time, an improvisational system of “sneakernets” has emerged, in which USB keys, CDs, and DVDs are used to distribute material that has been downloaded from the internet. In several other countries with freer environments, it was clear that political opposition was able to mobilize online and more openly challenge dominant power holders. In Malaysia and South Africa, in particular, this had a profound effect on the political landscape, leading to unprecedented electoral gains for the opposition in the former and a split in the dominant ruling party in the latter. It is in comparison to such examples that one begins to understand the effect that CCP censorship policies have had on political communication and public discourse in China. For, although the number of Chinese bloggers and netizens dwarfs that in other countries surveyed, thus far, the authorities have managed to prevent the wave of internet activity from translating into open political opposition to Communist Party rule or a groundswell of public criticism of the government’s key policies as has occurred in countries with many fewer active users. At the same time, it was evident from the study’s qualitative analysis that the online culture in China is among the most participatory and dynamic, in some cases more so than in other countries ranked freer overall, such as Russia and Georgia.

Violation of User Rights:

This category covered two main elements – legal repercussions and extralegal harassment, as well as surveillance and restrictions on anonymity.

Legal repercussions and extralegal harassment

In terms of the indicators in this category, the lack of independent judiciary or constitutional protection was found to clearly have a detrimental effect on digital media freedom, both in China and other authoritarian countries. China tied with Cuba for the worst performance in the “Violation of User Rights” category, though Cuba’s legal environment was marginally harsher, being the only country in the set to have formal legislation explicitly restricting internet-related rights. In China, by contrast, no formal legislation was in place, but rather over 80 administrative decrees had been issued. Indeed, most of the other countries in the study did not have internet-specific criminal legislation, but rather relied on general press laws or vague security statutes to punish users for online activities.
In 6 of the 15 countries under assessment, a blogger or online journalist was sentenced to prison during the coverage period. Nevertheless, while numerous prosecutions have occurred in Tunisia, Iran, Egypt, and Malaysia, and even better performing countries like India produce the occasional case against bloggers, the level of prosecutions was found to be highest in China. Using laws against “inciting subversion,” “leaking state secrets,” and “using a heretical organization to undermine the law,” Chinese courts have sentenced dozens of users to prison for online writings or downloading information on a wide range of topics.38 According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), at least 49 cyberdissidents were in jail in China as of July 2008, the largest number of any country in the world.39 Moreover, prison sentences for online violations in China were found to be longer than elsewhere, with a typical minimum of three years and maximums as high as ten, while in other countries most sentences range from six months to four years. Though these individuals represent a tiny percentage of the overall user population, the sentencing of prominent individuals within a fairly close-knit activist and blogging community to long prison terms creates a chilling effect and contributes to an atmosphere of fear that extends far beyond the immediately affected group. What was less prevalent in China when compared to other countries was the use of defamation and libel laws to prosecute individuals for online expression. Rather, this type of legal harassment was generally more common among better overall performers such as Brazil, and even the United Kingdom, where the phenomenon of “libel tourism” has had a negative effect on free expression.40 By contrast, legal repercussions for online activity were virtually nonexistent in South Africa, Kenya, and Georgia.
Similar to the legal dimension, China was found to have one of the highest levels of extralegal harassment and intimidation among the countries studied. Such intimidation of individuals reached significant proportions in 6 of the 15 countries, reflected by multiple cases of arbitrary arrest, 24-hour surveillance, harassment, restrictions on travel, or various forms of mental and physical mistreatment, including torture. Levels of abuse were also particularly severe in Egypt, Iran, and Tunisia. In several other countries-particularly Georgia and Estonia-users were also faced with the consequences of various forms of “technical violence” not present in the traditional media sphere, such as hacking or denial-of-service attacks. In the Chinese context, such incidents were generally more focused on Chinese dissident websites based outside of the country and therefore were not taken into account in the scoring for China.

Surveillance and restrictions on anonymity

The Chinese authorities were found to have put in place a pervasive system of online surveillance, among the most advanced in the world. Similar to the censorship apparatus, this system was found to be multi-layered, ranging from the international gateways to requirements that individuals register with ISPs and cybercafés before using the internet to quasi-government associations such as the Internet Society of China coming into existence to encourage domestic websites to self-regulate and monitor visitor activity. In terms of regulatory restrictions on anonymity, however, the environment in China was somewhat freer than elsewhere, with China scoring similarly to Brazil, India, and even the United Kingdom on this indicator, while Iran and Tunisia scored worse. This was partly because government attempts to implement real-name registration across all commercial websites have been abandoned for the moment after significant protests from the internet industry, though such registration has been put into practice among BBS websites of all universities.41 One possible explanation for this relatively relaxed approach, however, may precisely be the fact that the authorities’ surveillance apparatus is advanced enough to make a potentially unpopular policy of regulations on anonymity unnecessary. Supporting such a hypothesis is the fact that while SIM cards for mobile phones can be purchased anonymously with relatively few difficulties compared to other countries, text messages are known to be frequently intercepted by the Public Security Bureau in cooperation with the MIIT.42


To summarize, on indicators related to infrastructure and access to technology China scored moderately well. This performance was generally outweighed, however, by poor performance on other indicators as a result of government restrictions on access to advanced applications or on how citizens make use of these technologies. In particular, the CCP was found to have created the most sophisticated and multi-layered apparatus for controlling content among the sample countries. China also stood out for imposing the longest prison terms in connection with online usage. At the same time, there was a clear pattern of “push back” from societal forces seeking to take advantage of the egalitarian nature and technical flexibility of the internet and mobile phones to expand the free flow of information, even on topics deemed highly sensitive by the CCP. This pattern was also found in other countries, though in comparison, the dynamism, ingenuity, and sheer number of users involved in such efforts was particularly notable in China.
In looking towards the future, several possible scenarios emerge. Although China’s censorship and monitoring apparatus is already highly sophisticated, the above analysis indicates that there are several openings that could prove vulnerable to increased pressure by the government. Should the authorities gain the upper hand in this “cat and mouse” game, digital media freedom might further decline. Specific areas of vulnerability include: increased restrictions on anonymity-such a real-name registration or tight criteria for purchasing SIM cards; passage of legislation specifically criminalizing certain internet-related activities; stricter enforcement of censorship requirements on the part of private companies; increased numbers of arrests and forms of extralegal harassment, including the use of “re-education through labor”; and expanding current restrictions from the “desktop web” to the “mobile web,” as access to the internet via mobile phones becomes more common. To a certain extent, some of these disturbing measures have already emerged in early 2009.
More optimistically, in addition to further expansion of infrastructure and technological connectivity, particularly to rural areas, it is possible that the Chinese authorities may pursue policies to allow freer online discussion. Given the regime’s seeming insecurity at a time of economic downturn and a series of politically sensitive anniversaries, however, such a loosening is unlikely to occur in 2009. Nonetheless, there remains the prospect that, in spite of government efforts, societal “push back” will continue to expand. Indeed, this too has been evident in early 2009 with the emergence of the “Grass-mud Horse” phenomenon through which users express frustration with censorship policies.43 Similarly, as the more “public” sphere of cyberspace may face increased pressure and narrowing of permissible topics for discussion, the more “hidden” sphere of interpersonal and offline uses of ICTs could grow in importance.
Lastly, from a regional perspective, indications have already emerged of other governments possibly seeking to imitate the CCP’s model of internet controls. In December 2008, Vietnam’s government issued regulations holding ISPs responsible for ensuring that blogs they host do not include content deemed “undesirable” by the government. Cambodia’s Ministry of Information is reportedly advancing a law that would extend traditional media controls to audio-visual online content, a regulatory path similar to that of its Chinese counterpart. There have also been initial reports of the CCP sharing censorship technology and know-how with a number of governments in the region.
As such, an important avenue of further research would be not only to continue annual numerical assessments of digital media freedom in China, but to also carry out similar assessments for a more robust sample of countries, particularly within Asia. Given the diversity of regime types in the region, this would enable the tracking and comparison of developments and emerging typologies of internet control in other authoritarian settings like in Indochina, as well as in relatively established democracies such as India, Taiwan, and South Korea as well. Most significant, perhaps, would be to identify and monitor middle performing countries such as Malaysia, where internet freedom is considerably greater than that of traditional media but where the gap between the two may shrink should ruling elites seek to extend older censorship models to new media.
1 Karin Deutsch Karlekar is senior researcher at Freedom and served as managing editor of the pilot Freedom on the Net: A Global Assessment of Internet and Digital Media. Sarah G. Cook is an Asia Researcher at Freedom House and served as Assistant Editor on the Freedom on the Net index. The bulk of the research for the China chapter of the report was, however, carried out by an independent analyst, who wished to remain anonymous for security purposes. Xiao Qiang, Director of the China Internet Project and an adjunct professor at the Graduate School of Journalism, University of California, Berkeley, served as academic advisor for the chapter. The full pilot study, including an overview essay and all country reports referenced in this paper, is available at: Accessed 4/30/2009.
2 A complete list of authors and academic advisers for the various country reports is available at: Accessed 4/30/2009.
3 Ronald J. Deibert, John G. Palfrey, Rafal Rohozinski and Jonathan Zittrain ed. Access Denied: The practice and Policy of Global Internet Filtering, (MIT University Press 2008).
4 A list of members of the expert methodology committee is available at: Accessed 4/30/2009
5 Derek E. Baumbaer, “Guiding the Censor’s Scissors: A Framework to Assess Internet Filtering,” Accessed 4/30/2009
6 The full list of methodology questions and subquestions is available at: Accessed 4/30/2009
7 Ashley Esarey and Xiao Qiang, “Technology and Resistance in an Authoritarian Regime,” forthcoming, presented at recent workshop on Media in Chinese Politics, Harvard University, April 25, 2009.
8 The methodology of the Freedom of the Press index primarily assesses print and broadcast media. In recent years, however, some limited weight has been given to the role of the internet and its effect on the broader media landscape. In the vast majority of countries, this amounts only to a small variation and therefore does not substantially impact the usefulness of the comparison between a country’s score on the two indices.
9 ITU, Accessed on 3/23/2009;
and Accessed on 3/23/2009.
10 ITU,, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) puts the number at 641 million
11 “117m Chinese surf Internet via mobile phones, up 113% “, China Daily, January 13, 2009, Accessed on 3/23/2009
12 For the purposes of this paper, the original citations have been included for statistics and examples drawn from the China chapter of Freedom on the Net; For original sources related to other countries mentioned, see the text of the relevant country report: Accessed 4/30/2009
13 Accessed on 3/23/2009
14 CNNIC, Accessed on 3/23/2009
15 Accessed on 3/23/2009
16 Accessed on 3/23/2009
17 “2008 Freedom of the Press report on China”, Freedom House , Accessed on 3/23/2009
18 (p27) Accessed on 3/23/2009
19 “Attacks on Press 2007: China”, Committee to Protect Journalists, Accessed on 3/23/3009
20 “China blocks YouTube, Yahoo! over Tibet”, The Times Online (London), March 17, 2008, Accessed on 3/23/3009
21 “Iran bans negative petrol stories,” BBC News, June 28, 2007,
22 Accessed on 3/23/2009
23 “‘Chinese YouTube’ shutdown amid censor fears”, The Times Online (London), June 20, 2008, Accessed on 3/23/2009 and “China softens rules on video-sharing websites”, Los Angeles Times, February 6, 2008 Accessed on 3/23/2009
24 “Google founder admits compromise over China”, The Scotsman, June 8, 2006, Accessed on 3/23/2009;
and “China Skype services snags and stores users’ messages”, The Register, October 2, 2008, Accessed on 3/23/2009
25 According to the website on 18 August, 2008
26 The purported goal stated by these governments is to limit the spread of pornography, gambling, and other harmful practices, but such content is generally found to be easier to access than information related to political and religious groups, human rights violations, and alternative news sources.
27 “A list of censored words in Chinese cyberspace”, China Digital Times, Accessed on 3/23/2009
28 Accessed November-December 2008
29 For a more detailed explanation of the roles of the various agencies, see: Accessed 4/30/2009.
30 “China’s censorship 2.0: How companies censor bloggers”, First Monday, February 2, 2009, Accessed on 3/23/2009
31 Ashley Esarey and Xiao Qiang, “Political Expression in the Chinese Blogosphere: Below the Radar,” Asian Survey, September/October 2008, Accessed on 3/23/2009.
32 “Sichuan earthquake special edition” , Slideshare,net, Mary 27, 2008, Accessed on 3/23/2009
33 “Two Steps Forward, One Step Back? A Review Of The Chinese Internet In 2008”, EastSouthWestNorth, January 21, 2009, Accessed on 3/23/3009
34 “China’s web censors delete blogs, unplug servers”, Associated Press, October 15, 2007,,2933,301488,00.html Accessed on 3/23/2009
35 Accessed on 3/23/2009 Accessed on 3/23/2009 and “Breaking down the great firewall”, BBC News, April 30, 2005, Accessed on 3/23/2009
36 “Chinese Authorities Continue to Suppress Charter 08; Number of Signers Exceeds 7,200 “, Human Rights in China, January 9, 2009, Accessed on 3/23/2009 and “Charter 08 Still Alive in the Chinese Blogosphere” China Digital Times, February 9, 2009, Accessed on 3/23/2009
37 Mass Mailing, Accessed on 3/23/2009
38 Among the cases cited in the Freedom on the Net report, these include critiques of the government’s human rights record, exposure of abuses, linking violations to the Olympic games, information on internal censorship directives, expressions of support for protestors in Tibetan areas, information about the Falun Gong spiritual group, and criticism of Sichuan earthquake relief efforts.
39 Reporters Without Borders, Accessed on 3/23/2009
40 “Libel tourism” is a phenomenon whereby litigants from foreign countries use favorable libel laws in the United Kingdom to silence and intimidate journalists and other content producers. This practice has resulted in self-censorship, particularly on issues related to the funding of terrorism. As the law stands, anyone in the world can sue for libel in a British court as long as the material has been accessed in Britain. British judges have accepted lawsuits on this basis even when the number of hits for the online content in question is extremely small and it is available only in a foreign language, or if only several copies of a book have been bought from an online vendor by customers based in the UK. Those accused of libel in such cases are often small, non-British organizations or authors who cannot bear the cost of litigation and find themselves facing powerful foes with no such limitations. For specific examples of relevant cases see: Accessed 4/30/2009
41 Accessed on 3/23/2009
42 “China will monitor, censor sms messages”, Slashdot, July 3, 2004, Accessed on 3/23/2009 and “China cracksdown on sms”,, February 7, 2004, Accessed on 3/23/2009
43 Michael Wines, “A Dirty Pun Tweaks China’s Online Censors,” The New York Times, March 11, 2009; Accessed 4/30/2009.