By enabling hundreds of millions of people all over the world to communicate directly with each other and to exchange scientific, cultural, and news information almost instantaneously, the Internet has been a huge boon to global trade, as well as an ongoing experiment in untamed democracy. But in some countries, the openness of the Internet is seen as a threat, and easy access to the online world is often censored or blocked to everyday users.
The Internet is an indispensable part of today's global economy, but the free flow of news and information -- not just commodity prices and invoices -- pose a tough challenge for totalitarian governments that want their citizens to get all their information from official sources. According to Ken Berman of the Internet Anti-Censorship Office at the International Broadcasting Bureau, VOA's parent agency, China's leaders must face that challenge every day, because they are relying on technology to advance the people and society.
"The Internet is the basis of modern industries and all major manufacturing communications technology," Berman says, "but at the same time, it is a two-edged sword whereby having this extra information allows people to get viewpoints that are outside the official government point of view."
Back when state-controlled newspapers, radio and television were the only media, Chinese officials could easily control content. But that was then. Berman cites last year's efforts by China to limit news about massive drinking water contamination. The government tried to suppress the story.
"But the fact that there was tremendous dialogue on websites, blog sites, Internet chat, email, the Internet is telling the Chinese government that 'hey there are multiple sources of information and news and you, the government, no longer have a lock [exclusive control] on it. So you've gotta kind of open up and share this, because it's going to get shared one way or the other.'"
Berman says that one way people in China can get uncensored access to the websites of the Voice of America, the BBC and other unapproved media outlets is through proxy websites that are not blocked. VOA and other broadcasters send mass e-mailings to Chinese users with links to websites that bypass the so-called "Great Firewall of China."
"You click on the link," he explains, "and you can pull information from whatever source you want. Now since we are sponsoring it, we'd like you pull it from VOA, but you're free to go to The New York Times, to Chinese dissident sites, and to Tibetan freedom, religious [and] cultural [sites]."
There are disadvantages to that method. Since so many emails are sent out, the links are easy for government censors to discover and block. An alternative approach is a free software program called "the Circumventor."
Bennett Haselton, the program's author, says that to use Circumventor, someone outside China must download the program to their computer, then provide a user in China with a sharable web address not yet known to government censors.
"When you connect to this new web address -- this new one that is generated -- instead of connecting to the target website in question -- like [the banned religious group] 'Falun Gong,' which would be blocked -- you come to your friend's computer and you are surfing the Internet through your friend's computer."
And that's its major drawback, at least in China: a user must have a contact outside the country to make the arrangement work, and many Chinese do not know any foreigners. Ken Berman of the IBB's Anti-Censorship office says no one solution is perfect, and that to reach China's billion plus potential users, it is necessary to use many approaches including text messaging, instant messaging, cell phones, mobile downloaded content on cell phones, online chat using different addresses than http://www.voanews.com, which has been filtered.
"We are open to almost any technical solution that is available to people inside China… so that we stay ahead of the censors… And it's a cat and mouse game," Berman says. "Sometimes we win and sometimes we lose. But we're still in it for the fight." To learn more about Circumventor software go to http://www.peacefire.org.