Americans traveling in Shanghai will have some more freedom to use Facebook, Twitter and other websites banned by China's vast censorship network, but the rest of that country may face even stricter government efforts to control Web access.
Chinese government sources told the South China Morning Post on Tuesday that Internet users in the Shanghai Free-Trade Zone, which covers 11 square miles, will be allowed to access Web content free of government censorship, including Twitter and Facebook, which have been banned in China since 2009. These government sources also told the Post that China is inviting foreign telecommunications firms to bid for licenses to provide Internet services in that zone.
"In order to welcome foreign companies to invest and to let foreigners live and work happily in the free-trade zone, we must think about how we can make them feel like at home. If they can't get onto Facebook or read The New York Times, they may naturally wonder how special the free-trade zone is compared with the rest of China," one of the unnamed government sources told the Post.
The Shanghai Free-Trade Zone is the first free trade area in mainland China with economic freedoms similar to Hong Kong. Both are centers of international business. Government sources previously told the Post that the free-trade zone could be eventually expanded to include the surrounding Pudong district. Other Chinese cities are also lobbying for zones with economic freedoms.
This move to remove Web censorship in a financial district of Shanghai highlights the stark difference in restrictions on Internet access allowed to regions of China including Tibet, says Madeline Earp, a research analyst at the Internet freedom research project at the Freedom House advocacy group.
"They want to keep domestic users away from information they think needs to be controlled," Earp says. "The government is very relaxed about foreigners using the Internet. They are not the ones the government is concerned about."
China has more than 591 million internet users and 460 million mobile web users, according to the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC). This Internet access is severely monitored and restricted by a vast network of firewalls and surveillance known as the Golden Shield project run by the Chinese government.
To get around those firewalls, people frequently use circumvention tools known as proxy servers, which are very popular among foreign businesses accustomed to accessing global news websites or chatting on social networks that are banned in China, Earp says. In the past year there has been an increased crackdown on the use of those proxy networks, and this latest move to allow limited access to the Internet in a zone heavily populated by foreigners indicates that the government is refining its censorship and surveillance techniques, Earp says.
"In the past year we have seen some Chinese service providers identify the proxy servers and shutting down the networks," Earp says. "That is a clumsy approach that has been causing trouble among the expats and the business community that rely on these proxy networks. The next stage is for telecom providers to identify the proxy network traffic being used by dissidents and activists. An American in China who is trying to get on Facebook is very unlikely to be flagged, while citizens of China trying to access a dissident-run website could be blocked."