The Myth of Internet Freedom

Chinese censors and Western tech giants have more in common than you think.

In July 2016, after a Hague tribunal ruled against China’s claims to land in the South China Sea, Chinese protestors unfurled a red banner in front of a Kentucky Fried Chicken in the northern province of Hebei. They viewed the chicken chain as a proxy for American hegemony. “What you eat is KFC,” the banner read. “What is lost is the face of our ancestors.”

The Great Firewall of China: How to Build and Control an Alternate Version of the Internet
by James Griffiths
Zed Books, 288 pp.

The protest was patriotic, but in the eyes of the Chinese government, it was still a protest. Party leaders moved swiftly to try to stop any further organizing around the issue. The name “KFC” was censored online, and the state-run Xinhua news service published an article decrying this sort of “emotional release” as a threat to the normal order of society.

On the surface, the Chinese government’s clampdown on a pro-China protest was counterintuitive. But, as James Griffiths explains in The Great Firewall of China, China’s censorship machine is not as straightforward as we might believe. Chinese internet control does not aim strictly to limit anti-China or anti–Communist Party speech. Rather, it seeks to prevent the formation of any community that could, in theory, threaten the country’s stability and its leaders’ authority.

Griffiths, a CNN reporter based in Hong Kong, shows that the story of China’s internet strategy is, at its heart, the story of the Communist Party’s quest to stay in power. He tracks the history of China’s censorship mechanisms and explains both the technical and political methods Beijing has used to control its online spaces for the past three decades, defying the predictions of Western spectators. Bill Clinton, for example, famously declared that China’s efforts to censor the internet were akin to nailing “Jell-O to the wall.” In the end, China has proved that nailing Jell-O to the wall may not be such a hard task at all. 

Griffiths tells the story of China’s firewall through the lens of the minority groups and activists who continuously storm its perimeters. The country’s internet has been censored almost since its inception, but regulators developed many of the firewall’s original techniques in order to quiet the spiritual movement Falun Gong. In 1999, when adherents campaigned for more favorable news coverage, the government drastically censored any Falun Gong–related material (and arrested thousands of practicing members). A 2003 study found that shortly afterward, censors significantly improved their ability to flag and block forbidden keywords. They targeted two main topics: human rights and Falun Gong. 

The Great Firewall includes many similar stories. To subvert groups outside China’s borders, like the Tibetan diaspora in India, the government launched sophisticated hacking campaigns. Domestically, China has dramatically expanded its censorship methods in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, home to the predominately Muslim Uighur minority group. In 2009, after two Uighur men were beaten to death in southern China, violent protests erupted in Xinjiang, killing over 150 people. China reacted by throttling internet access across the entire region, leaving more than twenty million people without access to the web, long-distance phone calls, or text messaging for almost a year.

Chinese censorship isn’t exclusively, or even mostly, about politics. The Chinese government’s goal is to stop organizing of any kind. As the Communist Party sees it, any group conversation outside of state control can lead to factionalism and, ultimately, disorder. For that reason, Chinese censors seem not to discriminate between different types of collective movements. Censors, for example, have wrangled with short video platforms—a growing and vibrant online entertainment sector. These platforms often yield committed fans who do things that mainly constitute public humor but verge on public organizing. They chant silly slogans. They honk their horns in patterns while sitting at red lights. They do community service. Neihan Duanzi, an app that created a particularly quirky fan base, was shuttered last spring. Other similar apps have defensively self-censored.

And yet China’s internet is thriving. In 2018, the country created ninety-seven new tech start-ups worth at least $1 billion each. China leads the world in mobile payment transactions. WeChat has evolved from a simple messaging service to a life-encompassing ecosystem where users pay bills, rent bicycles, play games, and order food. And China’s meme-filled social media is lively and entertaining. 

Because very few Chinese people attempt to visit banned foreign sites like the New York Times or Twitter, the censorship that average mainlanders experience takes place largely on domestic sites and services. Chinese censors issue top-down directives, but web platforms are responsible for policing their own content, including user-generated posts and comments. Because this is expensive and time-consuming, platforms often outsource monitoring and removal to private “censorship factories,” where young workers scour sites for forbidden photos and comments.

Companies that fail to comply are penalized and sometimes shut down. This encourages Chinese internet companies to err on the side of caution, which leaves little room for even moderate voices. Griffiths discusses the case of the Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti, who once ran a moderate culture and politics website. Griffiths tracks Tohti’s life, from his attempt to live as a model minority as a child in Xinjiang to his arrest five years ago in the Beijing airport, as he was trying to fly with his daughter to the United States. He was held at immigration and urged his daughter to board the plane without him. She hasn’t seen him since; he has been in prison, serving a life sentence for separatism and inciting hatred.

Though he delivers a powerful denunciation of China’s firewall, Griffiths is no fan of the West’s internet either. In the early days of the web, tech pioneers trumpeted the libertarian ideal that “information wants to be free” and speculated that an unregulated internet would lead to freedom around the world. But as Griffiths notes, tech companies have hidden behind these ideals to dodge regulations and build monopolies. These monopolies now control a dangerous amount of our data, and they buy upstart competitors to ensure continued dominance.

They also limit free speech. Algorithmic bias by large companies, for example, censors certain groups more heavily than others. A ProPublica investigation recently revealed that Facebook’s secretive hate speech policies are inconsistent. In some cases, they favor governments and international elites over grassroots organizers, and white men over black children. Griffiths notes that an ugly consequence of the fake news panic may be increased censorship in the West. As these companies furtively wade into self-censorship, there are bound to be missteps. Some Chinese leaders already take America’s fake news problem as evidence that their own approach is better.

Western companies have deployed aggressive tactics as they expand into developing nations. In many lower- and middle-income countries, Mark Zuckerberg is peddling his Internet.org service, otherwise known as “Free Basics,” which provides a limited bundle of Facebook-approved apps and websites to those too poor to purchase full internet service. Marketed as a way to make the web more affordable, Free Basics effectively pushes parts of the world’s poorest populations into a censored, Facebook-controlled version of the internet. 

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that Western companies have contributed directly to China’s own surveillance structures. Cisco, for example, supplied China with its earliest surveillance and filtering software. And while many major American web companies no longer operate in China, there’s evidence they might return. Facebook has reportedly developed a tool that can suppress posts in certain geographic regions—a feature that, according to the New York Times, was built in an effort to woo Chinese leaders and ultimately reenter the Chinese market. In a December 2018 congressional hearing, Google’s CEO pointedly refused to rule out the company’s return to the mainland. 

Griffiths also worries about the spread of Chinese censorship around the world. Russia, for example, has modeled its censorship system on the Great Firewall. In early 2018, Russian authorities used China-designed techniques to block Telegram, a messaging app known for its ability to keep data private. Likewise, Griffiths fears that Chinese-style censorship might infiltrate Africa, where China has invested heavily. In 2017, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni attempted to block opposition organizers by knocking out the country’s internet during the week of the presidential election.

But while The Great Firewall raises many alarms, it is not prescriptive. Griffiths only spends a brief section of the epilogue discussing a possible, third course for the future of the world’s internet—one that involves neither the censorship of the Chinese government nor the opaque control of Western tech giants. He writes, “True change will only come when we develop an alternative vision, one of a user-controlled, transparent and democratic internet built around the technology’s original promises.”

As for who might lead that charge, Griffiths doesn’t say.

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Cassidy McDonald

Cassidy McDonald is a Beijing-based journalist at TechNode.