That the Chinese government wants to monitor what internet users there are up to shouldn't be news to anyone.

The fact that they've introduced cartoon "virtual police" to remind everyone that their every click is made under observation has made a few headlines, though.

Reading what the Chinese government says is decent material is fine - browsing pornography and other undesirable web sites will get you into trouble.

So they've had an idea - introduce virtual police officers to "patrol" computers, appearing on screen every half hour or so to remind people what they should (and should not) be seeing online.

The cybercops (as every tabloid in the world has now dubbed them) started patrolling this week, following an earlier trial in the southern Shenzhen. They will appear on many of China's most popular sites, mostly the portals like

Don't be fooled by the cybercops friendly cartoon appearance. What's appearing on the screen is really just another advert, an image that doesn't actually patrol anything.

The real police work is done behind the scenes, in a much more serious manner.

China's population has been seeing a limited subset of the wider internet for years now, thanks to a system put in place that prevents Chinese computers from getting a direct internet connection.

Instead, every request for every web page is put through a series of proxy servers - in other words, computers under the control of the authorities.

If a Chinese user types "" into their browser, the request goes through the proxies and will be either granted or denied.

That's sinister enough, but there's more. The launch of the virtual police advertises that the web monitoring team will also check where the request has come from, by tracing the computer that made it. You might find the police knocking on the door of your house or cybercafe before you've finished browsing; and they'll take the computer away for evidence.

So how can we find out exactly which global websites are available in China, and which ones are blocked by the authorities?

You guessed it - there's a website that will tell us. It's called "The Great Firewall of China" (what other name could it possibly have?) and is very simple to use.

Go to and type the address of your favourite web site into the search box at the top. It will then send test requests via a server in China - don't ask me how they've managed to set that up without being caught, but they have - and bring back a result.

When it encounters a website that's been blocked from China, a big friendly red alert sign pings into life, declaring in huge letters: "YOUR WEBSITE HAS BEEN BLOCKED."

It turns out to apply to an awful lot of sites you and I use all the time, including Wikipedia,, and Facebook.

Those animated virtual cops are going to end up about as popular as the last widespread animated desktop character -Microsoft's Clippy, the office assistant that drove everyone mad. Let's hope the cartoon police fade out of use in a similar manner.

Giles Turnbull has a web site at