The West thinks China’s internet is all about firewalls and censorship, but as a new book shows, the battle for control is full of dubious motives.
In March 2015, China turned its Great Cannon on the West. A two-week attack knocked out websites hosting anti-censorship software. The cyberweapon is thought to be part of the same state apparatus as the Great Firewall, software that has cut China’s internet off from the rest of the world for years, blocking most Google services and many news sites and social networks.
It was the first known use by China of a cyberweapon to enforce that blockade.
As Hong Kong-based journalist James Griffiths describes in his book, The Great Firewall of China, it was a pivotal moment, “when the architects of the Great Firewall turned their attention to the rest of the world, unwilling to tolerate challenges to their dominance wherever they came from”.
The cyberattack co-opted Baidu, China’s answer to Google and the fourth-most-visited search engine in the world at the time. When a person visits a site with a Baidu ad on it, the ad’s code contacts the company’s servers in China. During the attack, a bit of the Baidu code was swapped out, so the hundreds of millions of browsers that loaded a Baidu ad also contacted certain target sites, overwhelming them with traffic and knocking them offline.
“It was a message,” writes Griffiths, a “new front in China’s war on the internet”.
The Great Firewall of China is a riveting read, revealing the questionable acts of states and corporations as they vie to shape the internet to their own ends. And Griffiths has an eye for the detail that brings anecdotes to life. Many of his stories show how offline and online lives merge in bizarre ways.
Take the overworked Marriott customer-services employee in Omaha, who lost his night-shift job replying to Twitter queries after he accidentally kicked off an international incident by liking a tweet that promoted Tibet’s independence.
All Griffiths’s stories, literally or metaphorically, lead back to China’s audacious plan to build a new kind of internet. Hundreds of millions of its citizens are online, with the country ranking 42nd out of 100 on the Inclusive Internet Index, an analysis commissioned by Facebook and carried out by the Economist Intelligence Unit. This is above Mexico, India, Iran and many African countries.
“A man lost his job replying to Twitter queries after he accidentally kicked off an international incident”
China also has its own versions of Google, Amazon and Facebook. Now, as well as Baidu, it has giants like Alibaba and Renren.
It isn’t hard for anyone in China to peek over the firewall. Thousands, maybe millions, of Chinese people use virtual private networks, or VPNs. They create an encrypted tunnel from computers inside the blockade to networks on the outside, giving anonymous access to the wider web.
But more and more, people who develop or distribute software for tunnelling through the firewall are being arrested. The crackdown is largely down to China’s president Xi Jinping.
In December 2015, China hosted what it billed as the second World Internet Conference, where Xi set out his vision for the future of the internet. “We should respect the right of individual countries to independently choose their own path of cyber development,” Griffiths quotes Xi as saying. Xi also argued that cyberspace isn’t a domain beyond the rule of law.
Conference organisers had planned to get delegates to back Xi’s vision of cybersovereignty. According to Griffiths, a draft declaration was slipped under hotel doors during the night, with just 8 hours to table amendments before the declaration in the morning. Not surprisingly, delegates cried foul and, facing embarrassment, organisers cancelled the announcement.
Grasping cybersovereignty is key, says Griffiths: “It is the driving policy behind Chinese internet strategy, and represents a major threat to the global web order.”
Questions on cybersovereignty aren’t new. Griffiths quotes John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) internet rights group. In 1996, he wrote “A declaration of the independence of cyberspace” in response to the US Communications Decency Act. Barlow saw the act’s attempt to regulate online pornography as overreaching. His polemic read: “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone… You have no sovereignty where we gather… You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.”
Barlow’s point wasn’t to defend pornography but rather to make it clear that the internet wasn’t a place where government lawmakers were welcome. Barlow believed that online communities should be allowed to self-regulate according to the ethical deliberation of their members.
Two decades on, this sounds quaint. In many ways, Barlow, who died last year, was the product of a past era. He was a political activist who also wrote lyrics for the Grateful Dead. True, he helped shape a frontier that groups like the EFF still defend. But the future was different back then.
In 1996, you could credibly claim that the internet should remain free from governmental or corporate influence. Fast forward, and an internet without government surveillance and corporate dominance seems impossible. The internet is no longer a libertarian’s utopia, if it ever was. The choice is no longer between regulation or freedom, but between who controls it.
“The choice is no longer between regulation or freedom, but between who controls the internet”
So it is still worth asking: who rules the internet? Daily life depends on the answer. There are things we all agree need banning, such as obscene images of children. We could probably also agree about outlawing the uploading of pornographic pictures of someone or revealing personal data as a revenge act.
Some areas are greyer, though. Germany’s laws about depicting violence differ from those in the UK, for example. And countries differ in their tolerance of nudity. Pirating music or films violates offline laws, but a case has been made many times that the nature of digital duplication and dissemination challenges that. Calls for tech giants to do a better job policing their domains leave us asking ourselves if we are happier with companies to be the new arbiters of our morality rather than governments.
Griffiths is good at calling out the hypocrisy of tech companies, including Google and Twitter, that espouse one ideology in Silicon Valley and another when talking to oppressive regimes. “No company has been more shameless in its attempts to woo Beijing than Facebook,” he writes. “Founder Mark Zuckerberg has posed for photos running in the Beijing smog, given employees copies of Xi Jinping’s The Governance of China, and even reportedly asked Xi to name his first child (Xi declined).”
And according to The New York Times, Facebook has developed a tool that lets it hide posts from people’s feeds in specific countries, apparently with the aim of breaking into China.
Of course, we should condemn China’s draconian measures against its dissidents – or those simply seeking a fuller world view.
Just remember: to some extent governments and corporations everywhere choose the internet they allow people to use, through full-blown censorship or local obscenity and encryption laws.
The difference is that China takes this to extremes.