06/07/2007 12:25 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Unraveling China's Great Firewall

Jeremy Goldkorn writes that a Chinese blogger who goes by the name Yetaai is suing China Telecom, his internet service provider, because his site, which he hosts in the United States, is blocked in China. The case was to be heard on May 29 in Shanghai -- but that date has been pushed back indefinitely, according to Yetaai's blog.

Not knowing much about Chinese law, I'm hesitant to weigh in on the merits of his case. But, one interesting technical aspect of it is this (excerpted from Yetaai's blog):

On 2007 February 28th, I found that I could not connect to a web site of mine, The 'traceroute' command told me that the problem came from a router inside the China Telecom network. As a customer of China Telecom, I asked for a fix, for 'maintenance' in computer jargon.

How China's Great Firewall (as the Chinese call it -- it's also widely known as Golden Shield Project) works has been a subject of speculation for some time now; not surprisingly, the Chinese government is very secretive about how exactly they going about blocking "objectionable" content. They are so secretive, in fact, that nearly all of what we know about the technical side of it comes from empirical testing. In short, it seems like they can and do block pretty much whatever they want, and do so at a fundamental level--in China, every action on the internet is subject to scrutiny.

Of course, it's no great surprise that China Telecom is in collusion with the government -- it's state-owned. But Yetaai's discovery of a specific router (a network device that analyzes and directs internet traffic) causing the blockage could be the first thread needed to begin the unraveling. Even if he does not end up winning his suit outright, even an acknowledgment of the censorship in court by the Chinese government would be a huge victory for free-speech advocates. Any technical information would be icing on the cake, and would be very helpful to those brave enough to seek to circumvent the system through technological means.

Either way, at the very least, he seems to have what he needs to begin a court case -- although the postponement of the hearing does not augur well. As Yetaai notes, "in China, there is no clear, legal statement about the human right to know truth or to make approaches towards it."

Then again, do we have that in America? Or do we just take it as a given?