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Weekly Column

Hong Kong party line: Why Beijing realizes (and Washington still doesn't) that Net censorship just won't work.

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By Robert X. Cringely
bob@cringely.com

Working in television is not very glamorous. Working in public television, which on its best days still has the ambiance of a suburban high school teachers' lounge, is completely unglamorous. But every now and then my TV work pays a dividend, and this week, it was the chance to be in Hong Kong as the colony was handed over to the People's Republic of China.

The last hours of the Crown Colony were eerily quiet. There were demonstrations, I know, but they were minor and very polite. For the most part, Hong Kong residents went away on vacation or stayed home. The expected drought of hotel space didn't happen. Local speculators had taken blocks of rooms, expecting to gouge visitors who never came.

The night of the handover itself, I went to two parties. The first was in Kowloon, across from the Hong Kong skyline. This gave the best vantage point for watching the fireworks. The partiers were mainly middle-aged British expatriates with the surreal presence of Boy George (fatter and short haired, but still George) thrown in. We drank champagne and were pelted by warm rainshowers as the last British rockets exploded somewhere in the overcast.

The second party was in Hong Kong, and was the gesture of a 30-something fund manager entertaining 300 of his closest friends. These were young brokers, traders, and other hustlers gathered mainly from New York and London. They were what in the 1960s we called "the beautiful people," wearing a peculiar collection of Chinese pajamas, prom dresses, and a hundred variations on the Chinese flag. Nearly all were drunk, including the lady who exposed her spectacular breasts for our camera, but only a few were falling down drunk.

Nobody I talked to at either party or in the two days preceding thought the handover made any difference at all. China needs Hong Kong just as it is and knows better than to tamper with a good thing. Though it is now part of China, Hong Kong will still be quite separate, rather like those indian reservations with casino gambling.

Mainland China is still nervous about the corrupting influence of the west, but the Chinese know that they can't completely avoid it. Not that they haven't tried. This was especially clear when I visited the Hong Kong office of China Internet Corporation, the largest Internet Service Provider both in Hong Kong and on the mainland. China Internet's machine room had an enormous Sun Ultra 5000 server, three Ultra 3000s, and a number of smaller, but still very impressive, machines. This is major firepower, far more than you'd find at most U.S. service providers, and China Internet has four more network operations centers on the mainland just like this one, with 20 more under construction!

What's especially interesting about this major display of computing hardware is that it is linked to the U.S. Internet backbones by a pair of trans-Pacific 1.5 megabit-per-second T-1 lines. That's odd, given the Hong Kong office alone could saturate several 45 megabit-per-second T-3 lines. Surely much of their Internet traffic must still be with the U.S. What could China Internet need with all those servers, given their puny link to the Net?

They are proxy servers. Just as American Online uses proxy servers to hold copies of popular Web sites to cut down on the number of times per day the actual site has to be accessed by AOL members, China Internet's servers hold copies of thousands of foreign Web sites, including most of the Chinese language sites in the world. But the difference between AOL and China Internet is that AOL uses proxies to keep the network speed up, while China Internet uses proxies to keep out ideas that are considered subversive. Your Chinese language website may well be available to mainland through the China Internet proxy, but isn't it interesting that the one section critical of Beijing seems to be missing?

So the T-1 lines are mainly used to drag entire Web sites back to Hong Kong, rather than for active surfing by users. When a China Internet customer looks at pbs.org, they are more likely to be surfing a copy of the site on the Ultra 5000 than actually going to PBS Online intergalactic HQ.

China is not alone in using proxy servers in this way. They do the same thing in Singapore, where the government also likes to get in the faces of citizens. What other country have you heard of that bans chewing gum?

It's important to remember that a proxy is different from a mirror. A mirror is an authorized copy of a Web site placed at some geographic distance from the target site to cut down on Internet backbone traffic. A proxy is an unauthorized (but legal) copy of those parts of a Web site most frequently accessed by local users.

But the fact is proxies don't really work and China Internet knows this. Raymond Ch'ien, a China Internet board member who also happens to be a top official in the brand-new Hong Kong government installed by Beijing, told me that the proxies will go away. This is for several reasons, but primarily because clever users can always find a way around the proxies and because, having already found their way around the proxies, nothing negative in China seems to have happened as a result. "It's not worth the trouble," said Ch'ien.

Yes, it's not worth the trouble. And while this probably has a lot to do with the fact that Beijing now sees it isn't really threatened by dirty JPEGs, the much more compelling reason is that proxying is generally impossible to impose on an informed user community. It's a short jump from deciding that something is impossible to declaring that it's not worth the trouble.

Then let's jump for a moment back to the United States, where in the next year or two a similar realization and rationalization will take place. I'm talking about the Communications Decency Act and other legislation to control smut on the Net. The U.S. Supreme Court wisely gutted the CDA last week, finding parts of it in violation of the Constitution's guarantee of free speech, but this isn't going to stop zealous elected officials who are determined to control what we can read and see.

What's scary about that? Not these officials, since we've been electing idiots to Congress for a couple centuries now without much negative effect. What's scary is the threat modern technology poses to government in the presence of such idiots.

Two months ago I spoke in Los Angeles on a panel discussing Net censorship. With me on the panel were two congressmen and an important federal judge. The congressmen gave their stump speeches and the judge made pronouncements, but they failed to address the fundamental problem that network censorship laws, in the U.S. as in China, are technically unenforceable. I said this when it came my turn to speak and my fellow panel members thought I was talking Klingon. So did the mostly conservative audience. The perception of nearly all these people was that if Congress passed a law controlling network content and if the Supreme Court found that law to be constitutional, then it would be enforced.

Can't be done. How do they keep out the smut from Finland or any of a hundred other countries? How do they keep the smut sites (or the sites on building bombs, for that matter) from morphing themselves beyond recognition on a daily basis, evading everything but users? They can't, but these lawmakers won't admit it. They won't admit that there are limits to their powers and danger in stretching those limits.

If I drive down the freeway at 90 miles-per-hour, I get a ticket. If everyone drives down the freeway at 90 miles-per-hour, we raise the speed limit. So it's in the interest of law enforcement not to pass laws that instantly put millions of ordinary people in violation. It sure didn't work for prohibition and it won't work for the Net, as they are learning in China.

Passing these laws is a threat to the rule of law, itself. They can't be enforced, but in discovering that's so, it is very possible that the police and the FBI will make some major enemies along the way. And I'm not talking about the Legion of Doom or the American Civil Liberties Union. I'm talking about middle America. I'm talking about my Mom.

Now there's a lady you don't want to have as an enemy. Trust me.

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