Gmail and Google services including Search, Scholar, Maps, Translate, and Calendar have been largely inaccessible in mainland China since June of 2014 — all were blocked just prior to the 25th anniversary of the protests at Tiananmen Square.
Users commonly assume that the Chinese government is responsible for the blocking. But exactly which government authorities are in charge here? And under which specific regulations do they block Google and other overseas platforms, such as Facebook?
There is no official channel for ordinary citizens to pose such questions to Chinese authorities. But as consumers, they do have a right to demand that their Internet service providers answer questions about discrepancies in their services. A legal worker living in Shenzhen has decided to act on this right.
Wang Long is suing China Unicom, China's second biggest telecom operator, for failing to provide access to Google's online services. Via social media, Wang has explained that knew he was unlikely to win the case, but wanted to make a point that citizens have the right to challenge these decisions.
The Chinese government has denied engaging in Internet censorship on several occasions and routinely claims that control over Internet access is intended only to block illegal content such as pornography, stave off online financial crime, and protect national security. Decisions to block online content providers and search engines could fall under the above categories, but it is difficult to see how this claim could apply to personalized email services. Thus far, no authority in China has explained why Google's online tools such as Translate, Gmail and Scholar have all been blocked since June. This stifling lack of accountability and transparency in Internet policymaking and enforcement has kept Chinese Internet users in the dark for years. Wang's lawsuit is an attempt to shine light on the story.
Wang's hearing took place on September 4, in Shenzhen Futian District Court. Below is a translated excerpt from the hearing transcript:
Plaintiff: The websites are inaccessible!
Judge: Defendant, can you confirm that the sites are inaccessible?
Defendant: Yes, they are inaccessible.
Defendant: I am not sure if I can say… I need to consult before I answer… I can explain this unofficially, I use China Telecom back home, and I can't access those sites either… (People sitting in the court were laughing at the answer)
Judge: The fact that those websites are inaccessible does not mean that China Unicom has to be responsible.
The fact that China Unicom's lawyer hesitated to answer the judge's question regarding “why the websites were inaccessible” shows that even the mere mention of government accountability for web blocking is a sensitive, practically unspeakable topic — the lawyer cannot point to a specific regulation to explain the inaccessibility problem.
In Chinese social media, bloggers kept highlighting the defendant's hesitation and his unofficial answer, again underlining the question: Exactly which authority is responsible for the blocking of overseas websites?
In mid-August, an online campaign was launched in demand of a transparency report from the Ministry of Industry, Information and Technology (MIIT) — a state agency established in 2008 for regulation and development of information and communication technology sector — on the official notices for the blocking of Google, Google+, Youtube and Gmail. The response was, “such documents do not exist”.
If this rules out the involvement of MIIT in the recent blocking of overseas websites, the instruction, as speculated by a Chinese blogger Lu Songsong, may have come directly from the State Internet Information Office under the State Council, which was set up in 2011 to coordinate and supervise online content management and handle the administrative management of businesses related to online news reporting. Indeed, the Council recently announced a set of regulations on mobile instant messaging services. But it also might pertain to the Central Internet Security and Informatization Leading Group, an entity headed by Chinese President Xi Jinping and established in February 2014 to deal with the country's information security issues.
If citizens were able to identify which authority issues and approves blocking requests, many of the legal and technical aspects of web censorship in China might become clearer. But other voices in the debate have suggested that authorities take a different route. In a recent article, party mouthpiece Global Times cited a Beijing-based expert in cyber security who blamed Google for the authorities’ censorship practice:
China Unicom has nothing to do with the failure. It is Google that should be blamed, since it does not operate its business in China. I call on companies like Google or Twitter or Facebook to offer services in China and accept [proper supervision].
Similar to other countries with restrictive online content regimes, it may become a norm for China to request overseas online service providers, such as social media platforms, to censor their users’ content if they wish to remain accessible in the country.
When explaining its change of censorship policy in June this year, LinkedIn revealed that its Chinese site, launched in February 2014, received a request from Chinese authorities to censor its content in June 2014. To keep the site accessible in China, LinkedIn complied with the request and started censoring sensitive posts from showing, at the same time, sensitive contents that are posted from within China will not be viewable to the world so as to “protect its Chinese user from retribution from government officials,” LinkedIn's spokesperson explained.
Although LinkedIn is now accessible in China, users in mainland China are still limited in the ways that they can use the site. As a number of human right groups have pointed out, LinkedIn's “global blocking” policy has limited the degree to which Chinese can interact with the rest of the world — and infringes the rights of users outside China.
The court's decision on the lawsuit filed by Wang Long has yet to be announced. While most Chinese netizens appear not to expect the lawsuit to clear people of their doubt and explain the legal ground for the blocking, they are still applauding Wang Long's effort to pursue government accountability for infringing citizen's right for free Internet access.