The rapid development of the Internet in China in recent years has been accompanied by a seesaw battle between surfers and censors.
It goes like this: Surfers find a Web site. The Communist authorities in Beijing use a firewall to block access to the Web site. The surfers access a proxy server to make an end run around the firewall. The authorities block the proxy. The surfers download a software program to automatically seek out new proxies. The authorities block links to the software.
You could call it a maodun, the Chinese word for contradiction. Mao means spear; dun means shield. On both sides, bright young people are finding new ways of blocking or accessing information on the Web.
Neither side may develop an irresistible spear or impenetrable shield, but the battle is sure to go on. In recent years, China's Internet user population has quickly grown to 26.5 million, with the number of users doubling about every six months.
Government Makes Internet Cafe Raids
China's government has also employed vague legislation, selective arrests of "cyber dissidents" and raids on Internet cafes to keep "Netizens" from disseminating and accessing what it considers politically subversive content.
The most recent development in the battle is that U.S. government agencies are funding, or preparing to fund, a small California firm called SafeWeb, whose Web site encrypts data between Web sites and surfers, masking the surfers' activities.
SafeWeb, based in Emeryville, has tried to mask its own identity by using different Internet addresses, but in early August, the Chinese authorities blocked these as well.
"We're largely ineffectual right now. Our traffic from China dropped by a factor of 5 or something after Aug. 6 or 7," SafeWeb co-founder and chief executive Steven Hsu said in a telephone interview. SafeWeb claims to anonymously transmit 3 million pages of Web content each day.
The thousands of proxy servers on the Internet are identifiable by certain numbers in their addresses called headers. Experts say that, just as surfers have used software called proxy hunters to identify available proxy servers, Chinese authorities may have built similar software that finds proxies and, within minutes, adds them to lists of sites for firewalls to block. Hsu says the Chinese government has now identified and blocked most publicly available proxy servers on the Internet.
SafeWeb has received approximately $1 million from the CIA by way of In-Q-Tel, a venture capital firm that the agency uses to fund start-ups working with intelligence-related technology.
Hsu said SafeWeb is also wrapping up negotiations to secure funding from the International Broadcast Bureau, the Voice of America's parent agency. Chinese authorities jam VOA broadcasts into China and block the VOA's Web site. In a bid to boost the VOA's ability to reach a Chinese audience, Congress last year allocated $5 million to the program, of which $800,000 would go to Internet-based news operations.
Most of SafeWeb's share of the funding will go toward deploying a piece of software called Triangle Boy, named after a character from the sitcom "Seinfeld." With the software, which can be downloaded onto private computers, Internet traffic goes from the user to Triangle Boy to SafeWeb, then back from SafeWeb to user.
Hoping New Software Can Evade Cyber-Cops
Chinese authorities have already blocked the addresses of many computers running Triangle Boy. But Hsu says that, with government funding, he expects to deploy 500 to 1,000 new Triangle Boy-equipped computers by early next year, most likely in the United States. These machines will be capable of automatically switching their addresses every hour or so to escape detection.
Hsu says he hopes Triangle Boy computers can switch addresses faster than Chinese cyber-cops can identify and block them. But his advantage could be a fleeting one.
"Maybe we won't succeed," he said, "but at least drawing attention to this issue is valuable too.
"This is just a side thing that we do for idealistic purposes."
His 18-month-old firm's main business, to be launched in October, will be to build corporate computer networks.
Hsu, whose parents were born in mainland China, is on leave until January from the University of Oregon, where he is an associate professor specializing in high-energy physics.
Censorship Measures Relatively Effective
The government's censorship measures have been relatively effective in keeping surfers from viewing sites such as those of Western news outlets, human rights organizations and Chinese-language news sites based overseas. A recent survey by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences found that only 10% of Chinese Net users frequently use a proxy server, and the government's blocking of proxies will have stymied most of that group by now.
Of course, analysts point out, the Chinese government has far more ruthless means at its disposal to control Internet content.
It could launch hacker attacks to disable offending Web sites, or disable surfers' computers by e-mailing viruses to them, although this would be illegal under Chinese law. Online forums on the left and right of the political spectrum that have been critical of the government have recently been the target of anonymous hacker attacks.