The Great Wall Redux
By Carlo Longino, Thu Feb 13 12:41:23 GMT 2003

China may have another Great Wall in the making - but will mobile porn help tear it down?


"Check this out," says Ma Lui, lead guitarist of a Chengdu-based garage band that hopes one day to become China's answer to The Strokes. Ma thumbs the keypad on his mobile phone until he finds the picture message a friend sent him earlier in the day, showing a heavily pixilated cartoon couple engaging in a sensual pose. By Western standards it's fairly tame stuff, but in China it's pornography and, technically speaking, enough to get Ma carted off to jail.

Though pornography may prove to be the killer content that drives 3G adoption around the globe, it remains to be seen how this is going to play out in China, the world's biggest mobile phone market. Despite the fact that pornography has an illustrious history in the Middle Kingdom dating back almost 5000 years, China currently has some of the world's most restrictive laws regarding its dissemination and possession.

Yet for Ma Lui and millions of others, porn is a part of daily Chinese life whether it comes via SMS, over the Internet or is purchased in the shady backrooms of pirate DVD stores. Though it is almost certain that the mobile Internet will provide another channel for bringing even more pornography into China, the real question is will anyone be able to make a business of it?

If the fixed-line Internet is anything to go by, pornography's rain-coated future looks fairly bleak for China. The communist government in Beijing is determined to maintain its tight control over the flow of information at any cost. Though hackers and even casual users find ways to get around China's "Cyber Wall", the state's power to censor the Internet is growing by the day.

"There's no doubt that China has the most expensive, large-scale and technologically sophisticated censorship system the world has ever seen," says Bill Dong, a spokesman for Dynamic Internet Technology, a North Carolina-based proxy network that provides secure, uncensored Internet access to Chinese users.

In technological terms, China's Cyber Wall is every bit as formidable as the Great Wall that once separated the country from the Mongol hordes to the north. China's censorship mandarins have the technology to do everything from blocking some 19,000 Web sites at the national gateway level (http://www.blogspot.com being the latest example) to censoring the content of individual e-mails through software that searches for keywords. In recent months they have taken to online "hijacking", a practice that came to light in October when users who typed in http://www.google.com were unwittingly redirected to a government-approved search engine. Some of this technology is homegrown, but the vast majority comes from foreign vendors such as Nortel, Cisco and Sun Microsystems.

When technology can't do the job, Beijing relies on people power. With 30,000 "Internet police," the Chinese government has the manpower to monitor every chat room and BBS inside its firewall. Those the government doesn't monitor are watched over by the ISPs and Web sites themselves, who are legally responsible for any obscene or "harmful" information that appears on their sites. Foreign-owned Web sites such as Yahoo.com also willingly take part in this self-censorship.

"I think they will definitely try and censor the mobile Internet in the same way," says DIT's Dong. "Because that is the first step they take for anything capable of distributing information they may not like."

The mobile Internet may, in fact, be even easier to censor because all content must flow through the mobile operators' data service platforms. Monternet, the data-services division of China Mobile, the nation's largest operator, is rumored to be moving all of its third-party providers under a single Monternet brand. Presumably, the state-owned Monternet will then vet all of the content.

Porn, however, is not at the top of the government's hit list. Most of the censors' efforts are directed at suppressing information relating to the banned Falun Gong organization or other groups the government deems subversive. When it comes to porn, a study by the Harvard Law School (which was censored for those in China who tried to read it online) found that Beijing blocked less than 15 percent of sexually explicit Web sites compared to the 86 percent that were veiled by the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Though the People's Daily newspaper still runs front-page photos of the police burning mounds of huangse dianying ("yellow movies"), the government's attitude toward pornography may be changing, if only ever so slightly. Dong, who monitors many mainland chat rooms as part of his company's ongoing game of cat-and-mouse with the Chinese censors, recently saw users discussing the idea of watching pornography in the privacy of their own homes. "They decided it was their personal freedom," says Dong. "And in the area of pornography it seems people are allowed to have these discussions."

But it will take a great leap forward to go from that to setting up a 3G content site featuring female cadres stripping out of their Mao suits. Craig Watts, a telecoms analyst with Norson Consulting in Beijing, believes that porn will flow over China's new 2.5G and 3G networks, but that it will primarily be of the person-to-person variety. "Maybe they can block Web sites, but it's going to be very difficult to block two people from passing nude pictures or compromising photos," says Watts. "And the new devices are facilitating that person-to-person interaction, so it's going to be difficult for them to find a third party to hold responsible."

There's also the question of how badly the Chinese people really want pornography. China remains a deeply conservative society where porn seems to have little appeal to the broad population (teenage boys and bored college students being the notable exceptions). Nokia's 7650 picture phone caused quite a stir when it was launched this autumn because Chinese people feared it could be used to take their pictures in public bathhouses and then disseminate those photos via e-mail.

The so-called "spy phone" debate echoes China's broader problem of dealing with pornography over next-generation mobile networks. Though the Chinese public was clearly worried by the new picture phones, the government knows they are essential to driving customers onto the 2.5G networks into which it has sunk billions to roll out.

Beijing may find itself in a similar predicament when it comes to wireless pornography, which is already proving to be the main attraction for Japan and Korea's new 3G networks. In the end, pornographic content over next-generation mobile networks is almost certain to become yet another ball the government is forced to juggle as it attempts to balance its desire to be responsive to the concerns of its citizens, maintain its monopoly control over information and keep China on the bleeding edge of technological change.

"If porn turns out to be the main driver for 3G and the government completely shuts it out, it's going to hurt revenues for the carriers - who are state-owned and making money for the government - so they are sort of cutting off their own hands if they want to go that route," says Watts. "If operators have less revenue and users are less interested in applications then you fall as step behind the rest of the world, but maybe that's a price the government is prepared to pay to preserve Chinese family values."



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Carlo Longino is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. His previous experience includes work for The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones Newswires, and Hoover's Online.