CENSORSHIP, BLOCKED SITES AND SKIRTING THE GREAT FIREWALL OF CHINA

SITES BLOCKED BY THE CHINESE GOVERNMENT

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In 2009 the Chinese government closed down hundreds of video sharing sites and ordered sites to delete all links to sites that download films and television series, As of November 2009, 414 video and audio websites had been shut down for operating without a license or containing pornography, copy-violating content to other “harmful” information.

In September 2009, the Chinese government announced that every foreign and domestic song posted in music websites needed prior approval, and foreign music providers have to provide Chinese translations for all the songs they post.

The uprisings in Tibet in 2008 and Xinjiang in 2009 prompted a fresh wave of Internet restrictions with more attention being focused in social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook and Fanfu (a Facebook-like Chinese site).

In March 2009, YouTube has was blocked the Chinese government. It was not clear why this was done but some thought it might have been done because of the showing of a fabricated video that showed Chinese officers brutally beating Tibetans. The government routinely blocks individual videos on YouTube but rarely blocks the whole site

Twitter and Flickr were blocked on the eve of the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square crackdown. Wikipedia has been repeatedly blocked and unblocked. Facebook has also been blocked. In October 2008, it was revealed that Skype messages were monitored and stored by Skype’s Chinese venture TOM-Skype and the information could be accessed by the government.

Links to Wikileaks were blocked in late 2010 when the site released its plethora of embarrassing documents. Wikileaks founder Julian Assange said the Wikileaks was getting past Chinese censors.

The Chinese government says that it has the right to block sites that break its laws for things like recognizing the existence of Taiwan or supporting Falun Gong, democracy movements, Tiananmen Square or the Dalai Lama. In December 2008, a few days after defending its right censor online content deemed illegal, the Chinese government blocked access to the New York Times website. The BBC has complained that the government blocks access to its Chinese-language site BBC Chinese .com.

Beijing is particularly aggressive in its crackdowns of pornography. In January 2009, the Chinese government shut down 91 web sites deemed pornographic and vulgar and one political blog portal. In December 2009, authorities began offering reward up to almost $1,500 to Internet users who report websites that feature pornography and set up rulers for domain registration to curb pornography.

Internet Sites Suddenly Unblocked in China

In June 2010 a host of pornography websites and information technology websites were been unblocked by mainland censors. The buzz apparently started with some Twitter postings in the morning that said: “You can now freely search any porn you like in China. Everything seems to be unblocked.” Then a Guangzhou-based internet analyst who uses the online identity Beifeng confirmed that at least 60 per cent of the overseas-based porn websites with Chinese content that he had bookmarked had been unblocked. He said mainland internet users could access more such websites with English content. [Source: Ivan Zhai, South China Morning Post. June 4, 2010]

William Long, a Shenzhen-based blogger, wrote that besides “a large number of porn websites”, many overseas websites offering various types of online services, such as URL shortening and bookmark saving functions, had also been unblocked. It is the first time censors have unblocked “obscene” websites since 2008, when officials launched a large crackdown on pornography sites. The action shut down more than 16,000 mainland-based porn websites, not to mention countless overseas sites, by February. [Ibid]

This apparent lift of online censorship on porn has sparked intense speculation: Some are taking it as a tactic by authorities to distract public attention from the 21st anniversary of the June 4 crackdown at Tiananmen Square; others say that with the recent spate of extreme violence carried out by mostly middle-aged men, the government might be allowing a little pornography to deal with some pent-up testosterone.Most IT engineers interviewed by the South China Morning Post yesterday said they felt it was pointless to speculate on the authorities' motives and that the sudden access might just be due to technical issues. Overseas political websites were still blocked, as were the well-known social networking platforms Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. [Ibid]

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Blocking Sites and Data Within China

With over 400 million users and over 181 million blogs — the Internet poses a numbers problem for censors. Unlike the case of the Great Firewall block foreign information from entering China, data within China “cannot be choked off at a handful of gateways. So the government employs a toolbox of controls, including persuasion, co-opting and force, to keep the Web in line. Self-censorship is the first line of filtering and an obligation of all network and site operators in China.” [Source: Michael Wines, Sharon Lafraniere and Jonathan Ansfield, New York Times, April 7, 2010]

“China’s big homegrown sites, like Baidu, Sina.com and Sohu, employ throngs of so-called Web administrators to screen their search engines, chat rooms, blogs and other content for material that flouts propaganda directives. The Internet companies’ employees are constantly guessing what is allowed and what will prompt a phone call from government censors. One tactic is to strictly censor risky content at first, then gradually expand access to it week by week, hoping not to trip the censorship wire.” [Ibid]

“The monitors sit astride a vast and expanding state apparatus that extends to the most remote Chinese town. There is an Internet monitoring and surveillance unit in every city, wherever you have an Internet connection, said Xiao Qiang, an analyst of China’s censorship system, at the University of California, Berkeley. Through that system, they get to every major Web site with content.” [Ibid]

“Under a 2005 State Council regulation, personal blogs, computer bulletin boards and even cellphone text messages are deemed part of the news media, subject to sweeping restrictions on their content. In practice, many of those restrictions are spottily applied. But reminders that someone is watching are pointed and regular.An inopportune post to a computer chat forum may produce a rejection message chiding the author for inappropriate content, and the link to the post may be deleted. Forbidden text messages may be delivered to cellphones as blankscreens.” [Ibid]

Google Battles the Chinese Government

See Separate Article

Internet Censorship in China

China’s Internet users are well accustomed to the daily manipulations of the Internet by censors in the form of shut-down blogs, dead links and inaccessible Web sites. The preferred euphemism for censorship is “guidance of public opinion.” Self-censorship is sometimes referred to as “harmonizing”” a reference to the government slogan of building a “Harmonious Society.”

Press control has really moved to the center of the agenda, David Bandurski, an analyst at the China Media Project of the University of Hong Kong, told the New York Times. “The Internet is the decisive factor there. It’s the medium that is changing the game in press control, and the party leaders know this.

The list of banned keywords is a state secret. Sometimes a search for something as innocuous as “carrot” can result in a “blank screen.” Trying to figure out what is on it and what is not is often guesswork. In some cases some words that are banned in Chinese are available in English and visa versa. Carrot — in Mandarin, huluobo — is sometimes blocked because it contains the same Chinese character as the surname of President Hu Jintao.

Even words that aren’t on list are effectively banned through self censorship. Bandurski, a told the Los Angeles Times, “There are explicit bad words, but the system really works by instilling fear. The paranoia is more effective than blacking certain words.”

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “You don’t always know when you’re being censored” sorry, guided. When searching a sensitive subject, you will be frustrated with a blank screen and a vague error message (“the connection to the server was reset while the page was loading: is the most common”) so you’re never quite sure you’ve hit the wall or some technical glitch really did cause the problem...Often the user who’s tried to search something blocked won’t be able to get back online for several minutes — the equivalent of a time-out for a naughty child.”

Self Censorship in China

Self censorship is the rule on the Internet in China. Most blogs are hosted by large Internet companies. They know that if the government finds something wrong the government will hold them responsible and thus the Internet firms censor the blogs.

Many websites censor themselves to avoid trouble. Those that originate in China must comply with local laws, get the necessary licences and put with threats to stay on line. Those that originate outside of China have to deal with filtering systems.

A typical warning from the Beijing Internet Information Administrative Bureau read: “Dear colleagues, the Internet of late has been full or articles and messages about the death of Shenzhen engineer, Hu Xinyu, as a result of overwork. All sites must stop posting articles on this subject, those have been posted about it already must be removed from the site, and, finally, forums and blogs must withdraw all articles and ,messages about this case.” [Source: James Fallows, The Atlantic, March 2008]

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Great Firewall comic

Moderators and the 50-Cent Party

In the early 2000s all bulletin board comments were funneled through moderators. Those that were deemed objectionable were never posted. By the mid 2000s, posts went online automatically with moderators watching rather than directing. Anything that seemed objectionable was quickly deleted. By the late 2000s, comment deemed objectionable were widely posted anyway, even on state-run bulletin boards using filter software or defeating censors by doing things like inserting a comma between “human” and “rights.”

Both nationalist and human rights concerns are largely driven through exchanges on Internet bulletin boards, text messages and e-mail.The government tries to sway opinion by paying part time workers to anonymously enter bulletin board discussions and monitor what people are saying and to manipulate opinion to the government’s side.

The government reportedly has 30,000 agents posting pro-Beijing messages that are paid by the word. The Chinese government trains and finances a group that infiltrates Chinese chat rooms and Web forums to combat anti-party discussions. Dubbed the “50-cent party” for the payments the group receives for each pro-government posting, they seek out popular bulletin boards and try to turn around discussions that might be critical of the Communist Party or the government.

The army of state censors can quickly cut off Internet users if they wander into disapproved sites. At Sina.com, one of China's largest online news sites, once 2,973 comments were posted on one controversial issue but only 849 were visible. The rest were blocked.

Range and Scope of China’s Internet Censors

“The China censorship machine is part George Orwell, part Rube Goldberg: an information sieve of staggering breadth and fineness, yet full of holes; run by banks of advanced computers, but also by thousands of Communist Party drudges; highly sophisticated in some ways, remarkably crude in others.”[Source: Michael Wines, Sharon Lafraniere and Jonathan Ansfield, New York Times, April 7, 2010]

“Censorship used to be done solely the Communist Party’s central propaganda department, whose main task was to tell editors what and what not to print or broadcast. In the new networked China, censorship is a major growth industry, overseen — and fought over — by no fewer than 14 government ministries. China censors everything from the traditional print press to domestic and foreign Internet sites; from cellphone text messages to social networking services; from online chat rooms to blogs, films and e-mail. It even censors online games.” [Ibid]

“The government’s strategy, according to Bandurski and others, is not just to block unflattering messages, but to overwhelm them with its own positive spin and rebuttals. The government makes no apologies for what it calls guiding public opinion. Regulation is crucial, it says, to keep China from sliding into chaos and to preserve the party’s monopoly on power. Whether we can cope with the Internet is a matter that affects the development of socialist culture, the security of information, and the stability of the state, President Hu said in 2007.” [Ibid]

“In China’s view, events since then — including the online spread of the democracy manifesto known as Charter 08 and riots in the Tibet and Xinjiang regions, said to be aided by cellphone and Internet communications — have only reinforced that stance. Since the Xinjiang riots in the summer of 2009, censorship has increased markedly, as evidenced by the closing of thousands of blogs and Web sites in ostensible anti-pornography campaigns, and the jailing of prominent dissidents who used the Internet to spread their views.” [Ibid]

Chinese Government Manipulation of Blogs, Chat Lines and Forums

Xiao Qiang, an analyst of China’s censorship system, at the University of California, Berkeley, cites one example: Jiaozuo, a city southwest of Beijing, deployed 35 Internet commentators and 120 police officers to defuse online attacks on the local police after a traffic dispute. By flooding chat rooms with pro-police comments, the team turned the tone of online comment from negative to positive in just 20 minutes. [Source: Michael Wines, Sharon Lafraniere and Jonathan Ansfield, New York Times, April 7, 2010]

“According to one official newspaper editor who refused to be named, propaganda authorities now calculate that confronted with a public controversy, local officials have a window of about two hours to block information and flood the Web with their own line before the reaction of citizens is beyond control.” [Ibid]

“Zhang Shihe, a self-identified citizen journalist and blogger with the pen name Tiger Temple, said the government ranked various bloggers by the risk they posed. The most dangerous ones will be shut down, and some others will receive alerts from the government, he said.” [Ibid]

Major cities like Beijing — which last year advertised for 10,000 voluntary Internet monitors — are increasingly taking censorship into their own hands.

China Vows to Punish Posters of Internet Rumors

In October 2011 AP reported, “China is vowing anew to punish people who post rumors and falsehoods on the Internet as the government tries to rein in forums that have increasingly become sources of debate and criticism. A spokesperson for the State Internet Information Office, a regulatory body under China's Cabinet, said in a statement released late Friday that Internet rumors and hoaxes were "malignant tumors" that harm social stability. The unnamed spokesperson's statement, which was carried by the official Xinhua News Agency, called on Internet users to abide by laws and stop spreading rumors, and urged websites to up their policing of content. [Source: AP, October 1, 2011]

Drawing the spokesperson's particular ire were the salacious, sarcastic postings on the popular Twitter-like Sina Weibo service that purported to be from a 22-year-old prostitute but were really posted by a 31-year-old male editor. Xinhua said the "prostitute's diary" account attracted more than 250,000 followers before the author's true identity was discovered and the account shut down.

Social media sites that are platforms for users to generate content are posing a challenge for China's authoritarian government, which is used to controlling what media tell people. After a crash on the showcase high-speed rail system in July, the government lost control of the message on the Internet, as people questioned, criticized and ridiculed the official response.

Soon afterward, the government began issuing warnings about untrammeled speech on the Internet and the need for companies to remove "rumors" and "false news," which are widely seen as code words for criticisms. The spokesperson's statement ordered local authorities and websites to penalize offenders.

Under Chinese regulations, spreading rumors is punishable by five to 10 days in jail plus a 500 yuan ($80) fine. In March this year, a resident of the city of Hangzhou received the maximum penalty for warning people to stay away from seafood from eastern China because the seas were being contaminated by leaks from the Japanese nuclear power plant damaged by the earthquake and tsunami.

Twitter-like microblogs, which have about 200 million users in China, have come under particular scrutiny. After Sina Corp. received a pointed visit from a Politburo member, the company said it would freeze the accounts on its widely used Weibo service for a month of anyone found spreading rumors.

New Agency to Patrol Internet

Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times,”A powerful arm of China’s government said Wednesday that it had created a new central agency to regulate every corner of the nation’s vast Internet community, a move that appeared to complement a continuing crackdown on political dissidents and other social critics. But the vaguely worded announcement left unclear whether the new agency, the State Internet Information Office, would in fact supersede a welter of ministries and other government offices that already claim jurisdiction over parts of cyberspace. [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, May 4, 2011]

China’s State Council Information Office said it was transferring its own staff of Internet regulators to the new agency, which would operate under its jurisdiction. Among many other duties, the agency will direct “online content management;” supervise online gaming, video and publications; promote major news Web sites; and oversee online government propaganda. The agency will also have authority to investigate and punish violators of online content rules, and it will oversee the huge telecommunications companies that provide access for Internet users and content providers alike.

The State Council is a cabinetlike agency that effectively manages the government’s day-to-day operations. Two former officials at its Information Office will run the new agency, and executives from two central ministries — public security and information technology — will also serve in senior positions, the announcement stated. The announcement indicated that the new office would work with other government units that regulate parts of the Internet, which could dilute internal opposition. But the sweeping nature of the announcement left some experts unconvinced. “My guess is that it’s going to be quite a fight for these existing regulators to give up power, because it’s such a big and lucrative endeavor,” Bill Bishop, a Beijing-based independent analyst of the Internet industry, said an interview. “It’s not clear from this announcement, either in English or Chinese, whether the new agency is going to oversee them or coordinate with them.”

Skirting the Great Firewall

More and more Chinese are taking measures to skirt the Great Firewall in a practice known as “fanqiang” (“scaling the wall”). And these days the practice is spreading from computer nerds and students to ordinary people. Some believe that if Google does through with its threat to leave China even more Internet users will seek to skirt government controls.

On the belief that the Communist Party controls China’s Internet Minxin Pei wrote in the Washington Post: In spite of its huge investments in technology and manpower, the Communist Party is having a hard time taming China’s vibrant cyberspace. While China’s Internet-filtering technology is more sophisticated and its regulations more onerous than those of other authoritarian regimes, the growth of the nation’s online population (now surpassing 500 million) and technological advances (such as Twitter-style microblogs) have made censorship largely ineffective. The government constantly plays catch-up; its latest effort is to force microbloggers to register with real names. Such regulations often prove too costly to enforce, even for a one-party regime. At most, the party can selectively censor what it deems “sensitive” after the fact. Whenever there is breaking news — a corruption scandal, a serious public safety incident or a big anti-government demonstration — the Internet is quickly filled with coverage and searing criticisms of the government. By the time the censors restore some control, the political damage is done. [Source: Minxin Pei, Washington Post, January 26, 2011;Minxin Pei, director of the Keck Center for International and Strategic Studies at Claremont McKenna College, is the author of “China’s Trapped Transition: The Limits of Developmental Autocracy.”]

Some Chinese who didn’t care that much about censorship before have become angered by the disruption and blockage of their favorite social networking sites. Popular VPN used by Chinese Internet user include Hotspot Shield, with 7.5 million subscribers worldwide in 2010, and WiTopia, whose business in China has been doubling every year and racks up big growth spurts after government crackdowns.

One art gallery clerk who became angry after YouTube, Facebook and Twitter and some of other favorite sites were blocked told the Los Angeles Times. “A friend of mine gave me a program where I can log on and I can visit all those websites again. Many of my friends are also using the same program.

Jonathon Zittrain, a Harvard Law School Internet expert, told the Los Angeles Times, the government wants to make skirting the Great Firewall just enough of a hassle to keep ordinary people from trying it. “The aim of the government has been to make it difficult for most people to get to some places, rather than t create a hermetically sealed environment,” he said. “I think most Chinese users are aware that there’s stuff they can’t get to without extra effort, and tend to find it more annoying than truly angering.”

Polls have shown than many Chinese support the government controls as a means of maintaining social stability. A 20-year-old university student told the Los Angeles Times, “I think the government should control the content in the Internet. Whenever they block something I think they have their reasons for doing so.

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Strategies to Outwit Censors in China

In the old days there were few computers and few telephones lines and the government was able to control most of the international access points and block websites perceived as anti-Chinese. But now with increased in the number of computers and the vast amount of material available on the Internet, the government has a more difficult time controlling cyberspace.

People have figured out ways to get on-line despite government efforts. Blogs are an effective way to outwit censors. If they are blocked they can simply change servers. Some that are shut down by the government one day reappear a day later. One pro-democracy site was shut 38 times over a three year period but managed to figure out a way to reopen each time.

Some sites post stories at 5:00pm when most of the censorship bureaucrats leave work for home, milking the story for all they can before censor show up for work the next day. Sometimes officials who close down the site are identified and besieged and harassed with e-mails, text messages and phone calls from those angry that the site was shut down.

To outwit filters that block sites with words like “democratic” or “corruption” users and readers in chat lines and forums use code words. There is also software that helps users evade filters and gain access to blacklisted sites. When authorities take action to block sites, messages and e-mails are sent to alert users of the moves and tell them how to get around them.

Once a piece of news is revealed it can quickly be spread by e-mails, text-messages, chat lines and blogs in way that expands very quickly and exponentially. The government may respond by ordering web sites that post the offending news to be shut and scan e-mails but by that time the information is in so many places there is no way censor it completely.

On Internet activism, Wu Xu, an expert of Chinese “cyber-nationalism at Arizona State University, told Reuters, “It’s so scattered, so decentralized, with so many fronts, so many “enemies” and thus so unpredictable. The government has tried to catch up and the control and tame the emotions. But it didn’t create them itself.”

Proxy Servers and VPN in China

Anyone who wants to get around the firewall can do so using one of two tried and true methods: 1) the proxy server, a way of connecting a computer inside China with a computer elsewhere, allowing signals with the data concealed inside it to enter China; and 2) the VPN, or virtual private network, which creates a private encrypted channel that relays information in a way the firewall can’t pick up. VPNs such as Freegate or Ultrasurf funnel web traffic through third-party computers, allowing users in China to gain access to sites that otherwise would be blocked..

The proxy server system can be very slow. The VPN system is faster and costs about $25 to $40 a year and is so widely used the government doesn’t dare crackdown on it because banks, trading firms, foreign companies and even the military rely on it.

In practice the firewall is easy to skirt. If someone really wants to get some information on the Internet mostly likely he can. The aim of firewall system it seems is to make accessing information just enough of a hassle so that it discourages large numbers of people from doing it regularly, preventing serious threats against the government from gaining momentum and becoming organized.

The most widely-used facilities are Dynaweb, Garden and Ultra Surf. These services coordinate their offerings through the Global Internet Freedom Consortium (GIFC), a group that receives some US government funding and is apparently run by friends of Falungong, the outlawed and extremely tech-savvy Chinese religious group-cum-political movement. [Source: Peter Lee, Asia Times, April 8, 2009]

The three services gleefully run a never-ending Spy vs Spy war with the Chinese cybercops, continually flooding the zone with new Internet Protocol (IP) addresses - a computer's identification number on a network - that their users (and the Chinese security organizations that inevitably participate in the service) link to with a “tunnel discovery agent” in order to connect to proxy servers - a computer system or application program that acts as a go-between - before the Chinese government shuts them down...They count Voice of America and Radio Free Asia as their clients and proudly state that the service has never been interrupted. [Ibid]

On Falun Gong and the and the creation of the proxy services, Ethan Gutmann wrote in World Affairs, “Parlaying technical skill, first-hand knowledge of how Chinese engineers had laid out the Internet, and canny understanding of the Public Security Bureau and Chinese users, Falun Gong expats looked for cracks in the firewall, places where the Golden Shield did not patrol carefully enough to prevent intrusion. Over the years, these practitioners created a massive wormhole called DynaWeb, a place where any Chinese user with minimal technical skill could leave the surveillance Internet behind, and then surf and communicate freely. DynaWeb was soon joined by other discrete practitioner systems such as Ultrareach and FreeGate, creating the Global Internet Freedom Consortium. The consortium’s staff was purposely kept small. But they held a lot of cards — essentially a series of proxy systems that could be played in lightning succession, confusing and counteracting the Chinese censors. They also held dooms- day programs which could, in a crisis, light up China’s network like a Christmas tree — a fact that also deterred physical visits from outriders for Chinese State Security.” [Source: Ethan Gutmann, World Affairs, May-June 2010]

China Cracks down on VPN Use

In May 2011, Charles Arthur wrote in The Guardian, “Chinese internet users suspect that their government is interfering with the method they have been using to tunnel under the "Great Firewall" to prevent them connecting with the outside world. Sites such as search engine Google and news site MSN have become difficult to access, they say. And a number of universities and businesses have begun warning their users not to try to evade the firewall. [Source: Charles Arthur, The Guardian, May 15 2011]

Since early May, a number of users says that internet connections via China Telecom, the largest telephone company, and China Unicom have become "unstable", with intermittent access when trying to access sites in foreign countries using a "virtual private network" (VPN) — a preferred method of evading the blocks put up by China's censors to external sites. Even Apple's app store has been put off-limits by the new blocks, according to reports. The disruption has mainly affected corporate connections such as universities while home connections that use standard broadband systems have been unaffected, according to the prominent Chinese technology blogger William Long

Normally traffic flowing over VPN connections is secure because it is encrypted, meaning that the Chinese authorities were unable to detect what content was flowing back and forth over it. A VPN connection from a location inside China to a site outside China would effectively give the same access as if the user were outside China. Sites including Twitter and Facebook are blocked in China; by using a VPN linked to an outside "proxy" which acts a conduit for links to other sites, a China-based internet user could access either site directly from their computer without the authorities being able to monitor them.

But in May that appears to have changed. According to Global Voices Advocacy, a pressure group that defends free speech online, the disruption follows new systems put in place in the "Great Firewall" — in fact monitoring software on the routers that direct internet traffic within and across China's borders. The new software appears to be able to detect large amounts of connections being made to overseas internet locations.

The problem has become so bad that some universities and businesses have told their users not to try to use VPNs, and only to visit "work-related" sites; to do otherwise could lead to "trouble" for the company and the users involved. Around the time this was happening U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton criticised the use of the Great Firewall, and the U.S. said it would provide $30 million of funding to break web censorship in repressive regimes, and added that China had a "deplorable" human rights record and that it was a "fool's errand" to try to hold off democratic changes such as those sweeping the Middle East.

Image Sources: Human Rights Watch, Wiki Commons, Laogai Museum

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2012


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