The Great Firewall of China

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The Guardian has been running a series investigating the extent to which our lives are recorded and analysed (see www.guardian.co.uk/bigbrother/privacy).

Of particular interest is the capabilities of governments and companies to view and read e-mails, and to log websites visited. Several e-mails have asked about the hushmail e-mail account I use for this column. Well, www.hushmail.com offers a free e-mail service with the ability to encrypt and protect your e-mails so that they can't be read.

The internet was meant to herald a new era of information and communication. The argument went that as more people connected to the internet, it would become easier for activists to discuss and organise. But many attempts by governments to limit the access of their citizens to the internet have been documented by civil rights groups. The recent decision by the Chinese government to block two internet search engines brought this into the headlines.

The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard university has been tracking and documenting attempts by China and Saudi Arabia to restrict access to particular websites. Their site cyber.law.harvard.edu/filtering/ is a revealing list of the things that certain regimes would rather their population didn't see. For instance, you can't access Amnesty online or the BBC from China. Nor can you access sites such as www.freetibet.org. Looking at the list of blocked sites for Saudi Arabia gives a real insight into the paranoia of this regime. Readers will be unsurprised that sites that look at abuses of human rights are blocked. But why does the Saudi royal family block access to a website devoted to the pleasures of angling for trout?

Which brings us back to the two search engines that have been blocked by the Chinese, google and altavista. Sites like these offer little content themselves, but provide collections of links to other websites. These two were blocked because some of their links are to sites critical of the Chinese government. The censors' subsequent backtracking on its google ban merely made the block more selective.

But why not block other search engines like yahoo.com? Well according to a BBC report at news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/ technology/2240493.stm, yahoo and 130 other web portals have signed a voluntary pledge not to post information that will 'jeopardise state security and disrupt social stability in China'.

So much for the abilities of the internet to provide accessible information to users across the world.