The greatest game at the 2008 Olympics won't be Michael Phelps's quest for multiple gold medals or the U.S. Men's Basketball team's attempt to redeem its reputation. The real contest won't take place on any field, court, or pool. It will be played on the Internet. Journalists, Olympic spectators, and Chinese citizens will attempt to write, publish, broadcast, and read stories. The Chinese government will attempt to control these stories or stop them entirely. To me, this is the only game worth watching, and I'm going to really enjoy seeing the Chinese government lose.
It wasn't supposed to be this way, of course. When China was wooing the Olympic Committee, the country promised it would offer free access to the press. Just a couple of days ago, International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge boasted in an IOC press conference, "For the first time, foreign media will be able to report freely and publish their work freely in China. There will be no censorship on the Internet." Bold words. And false ones.
When the Olympic Village press center opened this week, the Web sites for Amnesty International, Radio Free Asia, BBC's Chinese-language news, and many more news outlets were blocked. In fact, anything that the Chinese government deemed not in its national interest was forbidden. Forget about anything having to do with the Falun Gong or Tibet. And it doesn't stop there. Reports have claimed that hotel chains have had to install software that allows the government to monitor the Internet communication of its guests. Clearly, the Great Firewall of China is still standing.
No one knows exactly how many cybersnoops the Chinese government keeps on its payroll; the commonly cited figure is around 30,000. To augment the relatively low-tech "fear of imprisonment," the Chinese government uses several techniques to control the flow of information. First, the government uses network sniffers that monitor all the traffic coming in and out of the country's servers. Another technique is to block the DNS entries for specific sites. And although the Great Firewall isn't 100 percent effective, it definitely succeeds at making information difficult to get.
There are a number of tools that will help you find out if your site is blocked by the Great Firewall. I checked out a few URLs with WebSitePulse to see just what the average Chinese citizen could and could not see. PCMag.com works fine. So does Gearlog.com. Freetibet.org? No such luck.
Determining what gets through, and why, must be difficult, and the results often appear to be random. I have a friend who operates an innocent and apolitical travel blog at www.portablemind.typepad.com. Her blog was accessible last year, when she was actually visiting China, but now it's blocked. And that's a shame, because she offers up some great Beijing restaurant recommendations.
Despite all its surveillance technology and an army of cybercops, the Chinese government's attempt to keep a lid on the flow of information is doomed. First of all, the Great Firewall has already been hacked. For example, the Global Internet Freedom Consortium offers an entire toolkit designed solely to circumvent censorship and is encouraging foreign reporters to use it when they file their stories. The GIFC tools use encryption to bypass the firewall. Tools like this are dead simple to use and are popping up all over the Web.
Second, the Olympic stage is simply too massive, and the cameras are always running. Stories can be encrypted and filed over the Internet. Camera phones will take pictures and instantly send them across the world via MMS. There will be more than 25,000 foreign reporters in Beijing, and every one will want a story. There simply aren't enough government handlers to manage all of them. It won't be easy to set up live video feeds, but the technologies for uncontrollable mass communication are inside the country's borders. My bet is they will stay there.
The tide is already turning. After logging on and being unable to access the most pedestrian of Web sites, the journalists in the Olympic village revolted. Scared by the pending flood of negative publicity before the games even began, the Chinese government relaxed restrictions and opened access to some sites. Not for ordinary Chinese citizens, mind you, just for the press. This mildly liberal policy could be short-lived, but clearly cracks are forming in the Great Firewall.
Right now, the media seems preoccupied with the spectacle of the opening ceremonies and the focus on medal counts. And it will take a few days after that for the thousands of journalists dispatched from around the world to tire of hagiographic stories of athletic achievement and prepackaged cultural stories. When that happens, they'll start to look around at China's political system, the plight of Tibet, the country's catastrophic environmental record, and its heavy-handed attempts to control what its citizens can read and write online. Those stories will get past the Great Firewall, and I can't wait. This revolution will be televised.
Let the games begin.