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Authoritarian regimes around the world look to Chinese methods of information control as a model, but activists can do the same. Anticipating what methods of censorship and control may be coming down the pipeline in China would be valuable for governments and internet users seeking to safeguard online freedoms against further encroachment. It is notoriously difficult to make accurate forecasts about China, but here are some technological developments worth watching:

  • Cross-platform censorship: While online content has traditionally been separated from both telephony and radio and television broadcasting, experts say the three platforms are increasingly being brought under the same management and regulated by the same agencies. This could potentially streamline censorship and provide a more direct way of throttling dissent.
  • Interprovincial filtering: At least one academic study has found evidence that internet censorship technology had been installed at the provincial level. Experts wonder whether this would enable officials to manipulate the information flowing between provinces—a more subtle and long-term alternative to total blackouts in areas of unrest.
  • Targeting circumventors by usage pattern: Circumvention tools like VPN technology serve a broader commercial market in China, as well as users transmitting apolitical content like pirated movies. Rather than blocking the tools entirely, experts believe, censors are seeking to refine controls in order to block only circumventors with a specific usage pattern that indicates censorship evasion.

Ironically, this last example may provide some hope for online freedoms in China. So long as internet users defy censorship by creating content that current technology cannot trace or delete, propaganda agents and intermediary companies can adjust their methods in response. But if censors themselves are seeking to carve out exceptions, and grant privileges to pro-government or commercial groups, internet users benefit from what one study termed “collateral” freedom, “built on technologies and platforms that the regime finds economically or politically indispensable.”[1] Collateral freedom is a poor substitute for full and free access to information and communication technologies. But the existence of such a phenomenon is proof that internet control runs counter to the public interest. By attempting to develop a partial, selective censorship apparatus, the CCP is acknowledging that internet freedom is central to China’s success as a modern nation—and keeping doors open that netizens will continue to exploit.

[1] “Collateral Freedom: A Snapshot of Chinese Users Circumventing Censorship,” OpenITP, May 21, 2013,