Monday, March 29, 2010

Jamming, Blockers, and the Google-China Conflict

The ongoing struggle between Google, which wants its customers and readers in mainland China to have full access to all its services, and the government of the People's Republic of China, which legally requires Google to impose censorship on some aspects of what it provides, is unprecedented in scale and number of people involved, perhaps, but not in its essentials. Something very similar went on for decades on a smaller scale in a different medium: shortwave radio. But important technological differences in the two media make it harder for Google to do what shortwave broadcasters often succeeded in doing: namely, evading the efforts of hostile governments to "protect" their citizens from harmful foreign influences.

Around 1965, I somehow came into the possession of an old tabletop tube radio with a shortwave band. Back then, shortwave broadcasting was one of the few electronic media which naturally and inexpensively (at least for the user) gave one instant access to information from around the globe. Most nations of any size maintained some sort of shortwave broadcasting presence, and in particular the Communist-bloc countries kept up a barrage of English-language propaganda broadcasts aimed at Europe and the U. S. Radio Moscow came in regularly, and once or twice I even heard Radio Peking, as it called itself then. But even more prominent and easy to find at any time of the day or night were some strange buzz-saw noises. No, it wasn't interference from a neighbor's buzz saw. It was jammers: high-power shortwave stations designed explicitly to block reception of "undesirable" broadcasts, usually Voice of America programs. I don't have statistics to back this up, but it's likely that the Soviet Union and China spent more money on jammers than they ever did on propaganda broadcasts directed at foreign countries. It was more important to them to keep their own citizens from hearing unapproved information from the free world than it was to tell the free world about life behind the Iron Curtain.

By the nature of the medium, jamming was a dodgy and unreliable method. Broadcasters could and did change frequencies unexpectedly, forcing the jammer to take expensive steps to follow suit, and the vagaries of shortwave propagation meant that depending on where you were listening from—especially if you were not near a large city—you might hear Voice of America loud and clear and the jamming signal might not even be audible. But it must have been effective enough for jammers to clutter up the airwaves with dozens of buzz-saw sounds at all hours of the day and night, for years. Then the Internet came along.

The Web is both much better and much worse than shortwave broadcasting with regard to allowing free exchange of information across the boundaries of a nation which wants to control its media. It's better, in that more information can be posted on a single Web page than you could read over the air in half an hour or more. And since pictures are worth some large number of words, the Internet is much richer than any shortwave broadcast could ever be in that regard. But unfortunately for free interchange, the Web works through fiber-optic cables and equipment which must physically reside inside the receiving country. And the government which controls access and operation of that equipment has ultimately an absolute say over what the equipment transmits.

So if the government of China got up some fine day (to personalize an impersonal organization) and decided that it could do without all Internet connections to the outside world altogether, it could pull the plug and everything on the Web outside China would promptly disappear, without recourse. Something like that was never possible in the days of jamming, since one-hundred-percent leakproof jamming was economically and technically impossible. So Google, in its frustrated attempts to keep delivering its search engine and email services in China, has not been able to make that much progress within the mainland itself.

This is one reason why on March 23 Google announced a new approach: they were going to quit self-censoring their services and still stay within the letter of the Chinese law by moving their search services provided in the mainland to in Hong Kong, where different and more liberal laws evidently still prevail. It is too soon to tell how this move will work out, although a website maintained by Google to show the status of various services within mainland China indicates that the government is blocking access to YouTube, many websites, Google's blogger function (on which this blog appears, unfortunately), and began interfering on Mar. 28 (yesterday) with certain mobile services.

Although I haven't listened to shortwave broadcasting much lately, it's unusual to hear any jamming anymore, partly because shortwave radio has been overtaken by the Internet and partly because the world's biggest jammer, the USSR, no longer exists. Jamming was always a shady business anyway. To my knowledge, the U. S. never engaged in jamming of broadcasts intended for the general U. S. public (although jamming is a time-honored practice in wartime electronic countermeasures to disable enemy radars and communications). Any government which insists on blocking the free flow of information to its citizens thereby pronounces a kind of self-delivered judgment on itself and betrays a kind of fundamental insecurity—a fear that the light of day will show its citizens their true situation and make them want to change it. Google's shift to Hong Kong may make things better for a while, but the only permanent solution is for the government of 1.3 billion Chinese citizens to change its ways.

Sources: Google's March 23 announcement of its changes in service is posted at, and the website for monitoring services available in China is at

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