China’s Great Firewall Affecting Chinese Students Studying in America

If you’ve been following the news in recent months, you’ve undoubtedly heard about the very public censorship standoff between Google and the Chinese government. The gist of it is that Google refused to adhere to the Chinese government’s Internet censorship rules and in response, the Chinese government blocked access to some of Google’s servers housed in the country. Earlier this month, Google announced that it had renewed its ICP license with the Chinese government, striking a compromise that indicated the end of what has been called the "Great Firewall of China."

But while the ideological standoff lasted, it had interesting results. And we’re not just talking about its effect on Google’s stock prices. It had a significant effect on college e-mail access for international students from China. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently featured an interesting piece about the plight of Chinese students studying in the U.S. who returned to their home country for the summer during the whole Google-China ordeal. They wondered why they couldn’t log in to their university e-mail accounts. Chinese students attending Binghamton University were among many college students across the U.S. who had difficulty receiving e-mail communications during the summer from their colleges back in the U.S., the article said. Google provides free, Web-based e-mail service to hundreds of colleges and universities.

One student said in the article that there was no other way to know if he had been admitted to the university’s School of Management except to receive the notification through e-mail. And surely the time difference made a simple international phone call significantly trickier. After the complaints came pouring in from the university’s 451 Chinese students, the university’s director of international student services was blown away by just how many routine and even essential communications between the university and its students takes place through e-mail. And if that communication is blocked, what then?

Eventually, the university was able to work out a solution by re-routing its Chinese students to a different Web address, and the university let all affected students know how to get around the blockade, but the whole situation is worthy of further thought. Is it a sign of new technological challenges to come as colleges and universities admit more and more international students? How could a blockade of this magnitude affect online education programs, where not just e-mail but everything is done online? It’s definitely something to think about as online education programs and courses expand their reach to international students.

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