China syndromeChina sets to limit Internet access to Olympic visitors

Published 8 May 2008

Senator Sam Brownback charges that China has instructed U.S.-owned hotels in China to filter their guests’ Internet connections before the Olympic Games start in August; some question Brownback’s assertion — saying that Internet access in China is already filtered at the ISP level

The Chinese government would like American-owned hotels in China to begin filtering their Internet connections before the Olympic Games start in Beijing this summer. Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) said at a press conference that “two different reliable but confidential sources” had told him that China had demanded the hotels install filters in order to monitor and restrict information flowing in and out of the country. “This is an insult to the spirit of the Games and an affront to American businesses,” Brownback said in a statement. “I call on China to immediately rescind this demand.” Jacqui Cheng writes in arstechnica that if true, the move would go directly against China’s promise to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that it would open up Internet access during the Games, a move required by its host city agreement. Last month, the IOC reminded China of its obligations regarding Internet access, but told the press that it was optimistic that China would comply. “On all issues where that’s been concerned they’ve lived up to the (host city) agreement so we don’t see any reason why they’d step back from that now,” IOC coordination commission vice chairman Kevan Gosper said at the time. China has not offered details about how and when it will open up access, but sources told The Atlantic that the Chinese government plans to flip the Great Firewall switch off for a list of specific IPs-ones that belong to hotels, conference centers, and cafes that foreigners are expected to frequent during the Games. Cheng writes that we should be careful about accepting Brownback’s accusation at face value. The main reason is China’s authoritarian structure makes such a move unnecessary. China’s already-tight control over Internet traffic means that the Chinese government does not have to ask specific hotels to install filtering equipment, as Internet access is already filtered at the ISP level per government regulations? Hotels in China do not have their own, dedicated, unfiltered pipelines to the Internet, so what is the point of double filtering? Such unfiltered pipelines do exist, but they are heavily restricted to specific government entities. U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey told Reuters that he had no knowledge of these requests. Reuters was also unable to obtain comment from the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C. or two U.S.-based hotel chains that have locations in China.

Cheng writes that the allegations may be true, though, and that China may have, for some reason, decided to violate its host city agreement with the IOC. “Surely, the IOC would not look kindly upon such a thing and would not hesitate to voice its displeasure with China,” Cheng concludes.