Information Warfare: One Office To Rule Them All

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May 8, 2011: China has created a new organization to handle Internet censorship. The State Internet Information Office will consolidate all Internet censorship activity. This is being done, in part, to halt the fragmentation of Internet censorship activity. This was happening because over a dozen government agencies engage in censorship (of films, TV, radio, newspapers, books, advertising, text books and so on). Most of these agencies have expanded their efforts to include similar material that shows up on the Internet. This was leading to turf wars, or Internet sites getting an OK from one censorship authority, and a shut down notice from another. This sort of activity is typical of government bureaucracies, no matter where they are. If you can find another job, you can justify asking for more money and people. That's how most bureaucrats define progress and success.

The main current Internet censorship agency, the Golden Shield, uses filtering tools, which block message board or blog postings that contain forbidden words or phrases. In addition, some of the 40,000 Golden Shield staffers personally monitor message boards and chat rooms that are suspected of generating politically incorrect discussion of events. Internet users who say the wrong thing too often are arrested, or ordered to report to a police station for an interview. Some of the more troublesome bloggers or posters go to jail. It's assumed that Golden Shield will be part of the new agency.

All this Internet censorship activity is the result of years of effort. It all began in the late 1990s, when the Chinese Defense Ministry established the "NET Force." This was initially a research organization, which was to measure China's vulnerability to attacks via the Internet. Soon this led to examining the vulnerability of other countries, especially the United States, Japan and South Korea (all nations that were heavy Internet users). NET Force has continued to grow ever since.

NET Force was soon joined by an irregular civilian militia; the "Red Hackers Union" (RHU). These are several hundred thousand patriotic Chinese programmers and Internet engineers who wished to assist the motherland, and put the hurt, via the Internet, on those who threaten or insult China. The RHU began spontaneously, but the government has assumed some control, without turning the voluntary organization into another bureaucracy. Various ministries have liaison officers who basically keep in touch with what the RHU is up to (mostly the usual geek chatter), and intervene only to "suggest" that certain key RHU members back off from certain subjects or activities. Such "suggestions" carry great weight in China, where people who misbehave on the web are very publicly prosecuted and sent to jail. For those RHU opinion-leaders and ace hackers that cooperate, there are all manner of benefits for their careers, not to mention some leniency if they get into some trouble with the authorities. Many government officials fear the RHU, believing that it could easily turn into a "counter-revolutionary force." So far, the Defense Ministry and NET Force officials have assured the senior politicians that they have the RHU under control.

Around the same time, China began building what has now become a huge Ministry of Public Security activity called the Golden Shield Project (also known as The Great Firewall of China), and monitoring Internet use throughout the country. In the last decade, billions of dollars have been spent on this effort. While the Great Firewall cannot stop someone expert at how the Internet works, it does greatly restrict the other 99 percent of Internet users. And it provides lots of information about what is going on inside all that Internet traffic.

Year by year, the Golden Shield operators learned what worked (to control news) and what didn't. Not only can Golden Shield keep news from getting out of a part of China, but it can greatly limit how much contradictory (to the government version) news gets into all of China.

The new State Internet Information Office is expected to absorb all existing Internet censorship activities. But no detailed announcements was made of that. This is probably because some of the agencies involved are pleading special circumstances in an effort to retain their Internet censorship powers. Until the dust settles from this battle, which may take years, the exact composition of the new State Internet Information Office will be in flux.

 


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