Remko Tanis • 25 October 2018

A friend from Shanghai sent me a link to a Talking Heads video the other day, using a .cn link to Chinese platform QQ.

Clicking on it from Europe got me this:

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It says:

Sorry, this song service is not available in the current country or region at the request of the copyright owner.

Sidetrack. I doubt the band Talking Heads as copyright owner of the song see any money from clicks on this QQ-link from within China.

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The only way I could open the .cn link was by switching on the Astrill VPN - software which scrambles the WiFi between your device and an internet router. It allows you to pick one of dozens of servers located around the world, in order to see the web as if you are in the country where the server you chose is at.

Previously, I had only used VPNs from within China to visit websites blocked there. Needing Astrill the other way around, to get into Chinese cyberspace from outside of China: that’s a first for me.

Surfing in China without a VPN gets you used to screens like this very quickly if you want to venture outside of Chinese online services:

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One morning in Shanghai, I fired up my laptop only to be greeted by all of the most visited sites wiped clean - blocked by Beijing.

Just like Facebook, Google has been blocked for years now within China. Recently, the company has been getting slack from its employees for developing a version of its search engine that would be allowed by the Chinese authorities, meaning: it would self censor any search results deemed controversial.

Last week, US public radio distributor PRI interviewed Vijay Boyapati, a former Google employee who worked on a censored version of Google News, a product the company wanted to launch in China. Boyapati is very articulate in explaining why he quit Google over this - and why he thinks the renewed efforts by Google to censor itself in order to profit from the huge Chinese market are immoral.

He says:

If a journalist does have the courage to write about something controversial and Google was asked to censor them. And as someone who’d worked on the product, you'd have the knowledge that someone's voice had been silenced by something that you built. And that makes me deeply uncomfortable.

The full interview is worth a listen.

By the way, one of the first pieces I did from China, in 2008, was an interview with a young coder who had written a plugin for the Firefox browser. It was free to download and allowed people in China to scale the Great Cyber Wall and visit the web uncensored.

That story is here.