Pittsburgh Technical Council

Lessons from China: Freedom is an amazing thing!

Lessons from China: Freedom is an amazing thing!

Article Published: December 22, 2014

By Dave Nelsen, Contributing Writer

I read recently that Marriott was fined $600,000 for blocking Internet access for folks on-site. They were apparently trying to make more money from conventioneers in Nashville (you must buy our WiFi instead) and they got nailed for it. Hooray! But it got me wondering how much China would owe.

As I write this, I’m on one of the fastest trains on the planet, moving at exactly 304 km/h (over 185 mph) between Shanghai and Beijing. Indeed, I’m on a two-week journey through China. My brother is here on a two-year rotation as part of his job so we’ve got free lodging and an excellent, experienced local guide (his wife).

China is an amazing country, full of amazing sights and amazing people. But there’s one thing here that’s amazing in a different way … and it’s a reminder to us in the United States (and many other places) to be truly appreciative of the Internet as we know it, NSA monitoring and all.

My brother and his family were not home when my wife and I arrived at their Shanghai apartment. Having been offline for 24-hours, my first move—after locating his wine collection —was to jump on his WiFi network to synch email, check Facebook, access …

Whoops. You can’t access Facebook in China. Well, I’ll just have to read my birthday wishes after the fact. Not a huge deal.

Instead, since we’re in the midst of the so-called Hong Kong Umbrella Rebellion (I mean in time rather than in place), I’ll entertain myself by checking Twitter to see what’s happened there in the past day. No, you can’t get to Twitter either.

No worries. I’ll use the NYTimes App on my iPad to access the latest news. Fail! Nytimes.com is blocked too.

I’ll just have to use Google to investigate which websites I can access from China. No, you can’t do that either. Google, Gmail, Google+, … they’re all blocked.

Then I remember; I’ve saved some documents from my brother on my Dropbox.com account. It’s time to read them to see what advice he provided.

You guessed it. Dropbox.com is blocked too.

Maybe his Internet connection is down? No … Speedtest.net shows throughput speeds approaching 100 Mbps, the fastest residential Internet service I’ve ever seen. Netflix is totally awesome here!

With a bit more work, I eventually discover that Yahoo is sometimes available, perhaps whenever they’re not featuring “objectionable” content on their homepage. Lowly Bing (sorry Microsoft fans) is virtually always available and boy does it pop, as long as you don’t search for the wrong thing.

By the time my brother got home, his Internet connection was entirely offline. And strangely, his WiFi router’s SSID had reset to the original factory default, so his password was gone. I’ve never seen anything like that before. It must have been a fluke firmware failure.

Not a problem. He has a spare router. A few hours later, we have it configured (including with proper security settings) and his Internet connection comes back. We’re on-line just in time for bed so I am confident that I can get connected and get back to work first thing in the morning.

Or not. By then, the second router had suffered the same apparently fluke reset crash. What incredibly bad luck, don’t you think?

You can draw your own conclusions from my story. Maybe it was just bad luck. Maybe I’m overly paranoid. But I’m not usually one of those conspiracy theorists. Sometimes they really are out to get you (or, more likely in this situation, your company’s intellectual property).

Here’s my takeaway: If you go to China, bring a brand new computer with nothing of value on it (Chromebook anyone?). And when you get home, wipe it, and then sell it on eBay. 

And next time you’re frustrated with a favorite website taking three seconds to load, be appreciative of the Internet as you know it (at least as in the US). Freedom is an amazing thing!

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