China Faces Internet Challenge During Olympics

Efforts by the Chinese government to restrict Internet access for visiting press seem uncomfortably paradoxical with its desire to celebrate its new brand of democracy with the Beijing Olympic Games.

In fact, the Great Firewall of China, as government censorship is known, is out of sync with a ubiquitous digital revolution fueled by free-flowing information, insights and creativity. It is anachronistic in a virtual world. It will be interesting to see how the Western media--in particular, exclusive host network NBC--deals with it during the Olympics.

Troubling print press reports about walls going up overnight to conceal blighted portions of the city and removing itinerants to destinations unknown provide a surrealistic backdrop for what is certain to be today's opening ceremony. Such manipulative behavior has already become a metaphor for China's desire to manage the world's public and press glare. What the coveted Olympic Games may leave China with months from now is a $40 billion-plus debt and a new people's revolution--digital style. Can you indiscriminately shut the cyber and the real world out after you have invited them in?



At the same time, what is sure to be NBCU's incessant Olympics coverage online and on its broadcast and cable networks--as well as the less orchestrated coverage that will come courtesy of YouTube and other Internet renegades--will provide an unprecedented glimpse into the Chinese culture, people and emerging nation.

How much of the alternative, less flattering, and unauthorized view of China that seeps out on the Web remains to be seen. Earlier this year, the Chinese government shut down YouTube, Yahoo's news pages, Flickr, Wikipedia, and the LA Times site for coverage and discussion of such matters as the violence in Tibet.

Just this week, a tidal wave of criticism from world leaders, including President Bush and the International Olympics Committee, forced the Chinese government to ease up on its censorship of Internet sites that still weighs heavily on Amnesty International, the exiled Tibet government, Reporters Without Borders and various Chinese dissident organizations. Just wait until users of Twitter and user contribution sites such as "All Voices" (the "anti-Wall") demonstrate the power of personal-event reporting.

It could be the first step in blowing open the global debate over Chinese oppression and human rights violations--what government officials there most want to avoid. So far, NBCU's news commentators and guests have focused almost exclusively on more positive and enterprising information with a flashy landscape of the soaring birds' nest stadium and skyscraper-high electronic billboards.

Banning Web sites that violate Chinese laws is a tricky, subjective business, even with relatively few Internet service providers as gateways to the West. (China had more than 210 million Internet users before the Olympics.) The world's 3.5 billion mobile phone users (led by China and other Asian nations' 3G infatuation) may prove to be even more challenging with their digital video and text capabilities. While filtering software is technologically feasible, it may prove politically reprehensible for an emerging world power seeking peer acceptance.

The issue of media, entertainment and Internet censorship runs deep outside of the U.S. The Thai government recently pulled copies of "Grand Theft Auto IV" from store shelves after a teenager confessed to murdering a taxi driver to emulate a scene from the video game. It's a far cry from America, where a Republican Congressman in Texas used his cell phone to stream coverage of an adjourned House of Representatives informal huddle over energy since the C-SPAN cameras were shut off.

In many ironic ways, what we see of China through the Olympics will serve as a mirror held up to the rest of the world. It may force us to examine our own attitudes and use of new technology to inform, to challenge, and to entertain.

The Chinese government has some 30,000 cyber cops searching the Web for and removing entire sites, email and/or any material considered "illegal." Its Golden Shield system blocks content by preventing IP addresses from being routed using a standard firewall and proxy servers. Nearly two dozen Chinese journalists are in prison for their online reporting indiscretions. Saudi Arabia and other countries seeking to selectively embrace a democratizing Web will be watching closely to see how China maneuvers.

The Olympics will also continue to be a proud showcase for more positive technological advances. For example, Cisco (which supplies the Chinese with equipment such as mirroring routers) will demonstrate what it calls the Holy Grail of digital IP video--the ability to provide select shots on low-res files and extract high-res material. And there surely will be global implications of China's best-kept secret of ways of trying to control rain by injecting clouds with fairy dust.

But the most extraordinary feat would be China's efforts to put the tech "genie" back in the bottle after the games are over and the crowds have gone home. That's one event for which there is no gold.

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