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Architect of China’s “Great Firewall” gives rare interview

Image used with permission by copyright holder

In a rare interview, Fang Binxing, the creator of China’s “Great Firewall,” admits to having six VPNs on his home computer that skirt the elaborate defenses that China maintains on Internet access on content…but claims he only uses them to test his creation. “I only try them to test which side wins: the GFW or the VPN,” Fang said in an interview with the Global Times. “I’m not interested in reading messy information like some of that anti-government stuff.”

China’s Internet censorship regime is infamous for not only blocking access to a number of popular Internet sites and services, including YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, but also for blocking information on politically sensitive topics (like Secretary of State Clinton’s recent remarks on Internet freedoms)

Fang, a self-described scholar, is president of the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications. He candidly admits to being a key designer for parts of China’s Great Firewall, which reportedly started operating in 1998 or 1999, and expanded to cover almost all Internet access in China in 2003. Fang says his design was selected on its merits. “The country urgently needed such a system at that time.”

Fang recently launched a microblog on Sina, China’s equivalent of Twitter, only to be swarmed with abusive comments and vitriol from frustrated Chinese Internet users venting their anger over China’s Internet access restrictions. In an ironic twist, the furor over Fang’s microblog resulted in use of his name being blocked on many leading Chinese Web sites…thanks in part to technology Fang helped develop. Fang seemed to take the criticism in stride: “They can’t get what they want so they need to blame someone emotionally: like if you fail to get a U.S. visa and you slag off the U.S. visa official afterwards.”

Although Fang would not discuss the degree to which China filters the Internet, he did reiterate Chinese claims that almost every nation exerts control over its citizens Internet access. “As far as I know, about 180 countries including South Korea and the U.S. monitor the Internet as well.” Fang also acknowledged the Great Firewall is a brute force tool, blocking access to information solely on the presence of particular words or terms, without taking into account the context in which they are being used. He also acknowledged that China’s Great Firewall is routinely breached by net-savvy individuals using VPNs and proxies to circumvent China’s filtering—just like Fang does on his own computer—but held out hopes the technology would improve.

[Image: Global Times]

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Geoff Duncan
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