In China, the world’s largest internet population is subject the world’s most sophisticated censorship system: The Great Firewall. 

With 854 million internet users, China’s online population is more than two and a half times larger than the entire population of the United States. But for most of these people, the world’s most popular websites aren’t easily accessible thanks to a sophisticated system of blocking and deterrents.

This system is commonly referred to as the Great Firewall, but it’s not an official name used by the Chinese government, which uses opaque policies and strategies for internet control. But since the term appeared in a Wired article in 1997, it’s become a common shorthand for the laws and technologies used to enforce China’s digital censorship.

It wasn’t always this way, though. The Great Firewall only started to come about a decade after the first email was sent from China. After China got access to the world wide web in 1994, internet cafes started to spring up across China’s largest cities. Both the country’s early netizens and the government came to realize that the free flow of information could have some big political implications.

The government realized it needed to take action. By 1996, it had already started taking steps to control the internet.

The government released a State Council order that year named “Temporary Regulations Governing Computer Information Networks and the Internet.” It required all direct connections to the internet to be channeled through international ports established and maintained by the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications, specifying that no group or individual may establish or utilize any other means to gain internet access. This would lay the groundwork for further control in the future.

In 1998, when roughly 2.1 million people in China were using the internet, the government made it clear how seriously it takes online behavior. That year, a software engineer was sent to prison for sharing 30,000 Chinese email addresses to a pro-democracy magazine in the US.

But the government was spooked again by the power of the internet in 1999. Falun Gong, deemed a cult by Chinese authorities, used the internet to mobilize a protest, drawing 10,000 people together outside the Communist Party headquarters Zhongnanhai. The Chinese government had no foreknowledge of it. 

The Great Firewall as it exists today is not the work of any one person. But when speaking of the virtual wall that curbs access to the outside world, frustrated internet users in China put the blame on Fang Binxing -- dubbed the “Father of the Great Firewall.”

Fang Binxing resigned as president of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications in 2013, citing illness. (Picture: Handout)

A former computer science professor at the Harbin Institute of Technology, Fang became the head designer of the project that would become known as the Great Firewall in 1998, according to his interview with the Global Times in 2011

Little information is publicly available about the how the project came about, but reports suggest that it was developed by the National Computer Network Emergency Response Technical Team/Coordination Center of China (CNCERT or CNCERT/CC). The organization was reportedly first put together in 1999 under the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT).

CNCERT was officially founded in 2001, but Fang seems to tell a different story. His profile page for Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, where he was the president from 2007 to 2013, says he started working at CNCERT in 1999.

By this point, China’s internet controls were apparent. By the time Google launched a Chinese version of its search engine in 2000, it was already slow, unstable and blocked about 10% of the time. In 2002, Google was completely blocked in the country for the first time, but only for nine days.

Google’s search engine was blocked again in 2003. That’s the year the Great Firewall went online, according to Fang’s Global Times interview.

A cleaner sweeping the logo of Google China outside its Beijing headquarters in January 2010. (Picture: Reuters)

China has never publicly revealed technical details about the Great Firewall, but researchers around the world have studied it and concluded that techniques include blocking IP addresses, DNS attacks and filtering specific URLs and keywords within URLs. The latter method has become more difficult with the increasing popularity of the encrypted HTTPS protocol

But like the web, the Great Firewall is a complex and multi-layered system that keeps evolving. That makes it difficult for people on the outside to completely understand how it works. Researchers have found China’s internet blocking mechanisms are changing frequently in response to different situations, and they may change based on the internet provider and region.

Over the years, the number of websites blocked in China has ballooned to 10,000. The blacklist includes social networks like Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp; news outlets like Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times; and popular collaboration tools such as Dropbox and Google Drive (or anything else on Google).

While many people and countries still bristle at the idea of such wide-ranging internet censorship, China has sought to legitimize it in recent years by promoting the idea of “cyberspace sovereignty.” China defines this as each country having the right to “choose their own path of cyber development, model of cyber regulation and internet public policies.” Last year, the chief of the Cyberspace Administration of China said that the Communist Party should “exert full control over the information flowing over China’s portion of the internet.”

Over the years, many have argued that the Great Firewall has stifled innovation and creativity in China. But it’s also been said to help local tech companies by cutting off competition, leading to the rapid growth of homegrown tech giants like Baidu, Tencent and Alibaba, among a variety of other unique technology products that cater to domestic users.

(Abacus is a unit of the South China Morning Post, which is owned by Alibaba.)

Those eager to access blocked news or Instagram posts from their favorite celebrities might resort to tools like VPNs or Shadowsocks proxies to bypass the firewall. However, China’s flourishing tech ecosystem means Chinese netizens have little reason to ever leave the confines of China’s cyberspace, and reports from researchers and news media show that most have little interest in doing so.

China declared all unauthorized VPN services illegal in 2017. (Picture: AFP)

Even when given circumvention tools for free, Chinese netizens might not bother using them. A survey found that nearly half of 1,000 Beijing college students didn’t use free tools to bypass the Great Firewall, and even the ones who did weren’t spending time reading censored news, according to the New York Times.

A 2014 study on internet blockage and user behavior even concluded that people would continue to use local websites if the Great Firewall were lifted because of a preference for cultural proximity.

Some have also argued that the Great Firewall is effective in another way: It promotes self-censorship. Concerns about getting blocked in China, or for Chinese netizens, getting a visit from the police, results in people not talking about certain topics or seeking out certain types of information.

But even with all of its complexity and its effects on user behavior, the Great Firewall is not flawless. Even creator Fang Binxing has openly spoken about its problems. In the 2011 Global Times interview, he said that the system is lagging behind and needs improvement. The reason it results in a poor experience, according to Fang, is that it’s not precise. It filters information considered both harmful and unharmful.

"The firewall monitors them and blocks them all," Fang said in the interview. "It's like when passengers aren't allowed to take water aboard an airplane because our security gates aren't good enough to differentiate between water and nitroglycerin."

Fang isn’t the only official to voice concerns about the Great Firewall. Hu Xijin, the chief editor of state-owned tabloid Global Times, complained on Weibo that the tightening internet controls were affecting his newspaper ahead of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

“The overwhelming majority of our people are patriotic and love the Party with strong political conviction,” Hu said in the now-deleted post. “This country is not fragile. I suggest society should have more access to the outside internet, which will benefit the strength and maturity of China’s public opinion, scientific research, and external communications, as well as China’s national interests.”

But there is no sign of the government loosening its grip as foreign websites continue to get blocked in the country. In June this year, the Washington Post and the Guardian were added to the list of blocked websites in China. Another notable example is Twitch, a game live streaming site that was blocked in September 2018.

But Chinese netizens don’t need Twitch. At home they can use Douyu or Huya, just two more beneficiaries of the Great Firewall.