Hopes for the internet as a tool of liberation fall foul of the dominance of corporate interests, in the West as well as China, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh

James Griffiths, The Great Firewall of China: How to Build and Control an Alternative Version of the Internet (Zed Books 2019), xiii, 385pp.

The early evangelists of the internet saw it as a space free of government control; ‘naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us’, as cyberlibertarian John Perry Barlow argued (p.7). This view of the internet as a source of liberation from authoritarian regimes persists, for example in the extolling of Twitter’s role in the protests around the 2009 Iranian election, where one US commentator even called for Twitter to get the Nobel Peace Prize. In this, the regimes attempting to restrict and censor the internet are not just oppressive, but outmoded; ‘analogue ostriches with their heads in the digital sand’, as Griffiths puts it (p.8). Recent panics over fake news and social-media hate have, however, shown that this cyber sovereignty approach to the internet has more coherence than the cyber libertarians would like to admit.

The Chinese ‘Great Firewall’ is a continuation and extension of the Chinese government’s censorship of the media to encompass the online world. Most international attention has focused on how it restricts traffic from reaching Chinese users from the global web, blocking content from forbidden sites like Twitter, Facebook or Wikipedia. This is however only part of a much wider system which also includes a network of censorship of sites hosted within China. The latter aspect is officially called the ‘Golden Shield’ by the Chinese government, but Griffiths recommends avoiding the adoption of such ‘propagandistic newspeak’ (p.27).

The idea of the internet that holds that ‘information wants to be free’ sees government censorship like the Great Firewall as inherently futile. People will always find a way around attempts to restrict the internet. Bill Clinton summed up this view in a speech in 2000, in which he justified the US normalising trade relations with China on the basis that Chinese attempts to crack down on the internet would be unsuccessful: ‘“That’s sort of like trying to nail jello to the wall”’ (p.43). The Chinese experience however demonstrates that if a state is prepared to put enough resources into censorship, it can be remarkably successful.

Success for the Firewall

While it has been possible to find ways to get around the Firewall, this has become progressively more difficult, as the technology used for the Great Firewall has been able to keep pace with attempts to evade it. The government’s technological response is backed up by real-world consequences: a VPN user may get a visit from security agents to find out what they are trying to hide. These sorts of measures partially explain why, as a Harvard University study found in 2010, only 3% of Chinese users try to circumvent the Firewall to get access to banned, international sites.

The other side of why so few Chinese users attempt to evade the Firewall is that China has built alternatives to Western sites for Chinese users. Chinese internet users don’t have to take special steps to use Facebook or WhatsApp, they have Weibo and WeChat instead. These and other Chinese sites exist within the Great Firewall as they are heavily monitored; as Griffiths points out, most internet businesses in China employ in-house censors. The government is able to intervene when new developments in the Chinese internet threaten their interests, as they did, for example, with the development of influential users on the Weibo microblogging platform, dubbed the Big Vs. Various Big Vs were called in for meetings with the state internet tsar and given codes of conduct on protecting state interests and the social order. The penalties for breaching these became clear when one Big V was arrested for solicitation following his call for more liberal policies on Weibo.

Corporate interests

The reality of the internet in China is that it is not the government versus tech companies, but tech companies working according to Chinese government priorities to create the internet they want. Chinese tech companies like Huawei, Tencent, Baidu and Alibaba are among the largest tech companies in the world, but are part of the cyber-sovereignty system, not alternatives to it. Far from being an old fashioned, ‘analogue’ version of the internet, the Chinese government has built a system in which the internet is closer to ubiquitous and reaches further into individuals’ lives than the internet in the West.

As Griffiths comments, the dominance of apps like WeChat in China makes it difficult for individuals to avoid them, even when they are aware of how far they are censored and monitored. WeChat, for example, was initially popular with the Tibetan diaspora as it appeared to be a secure platform. Even now it is evident that it is not, abandoning it has become very difficult. As a Tibetan cyber-security expert told Griffiths:

‘“to actually get people to stop using it has been a huge challenge, because that might be the only app their family in Tibet knows how to use. How can you tell them not to talk to their family when they haven’t for a decade?”’ (p.283).

The dominance of apps like WeChat is an essential part of the social control which is perhaps the most chilling aspect of the Chinese cyber system. WeChat, as a US venture-capital firm reported, aims to influence every part of users’ lives: ‘WeChat has focused on building a mobile lifestyle – its goal is to address every aspect of its users’ lives, including non-social ones’ (p.279).

Its success in this regard, driven in particular through its mobile payments system, and the rise of other mobile payment apps like Alibaba’s AliPay, has created a system from which it is almost impossible to opt out, and which gives unprecedented amounts of data on individuals to be monitored by the government. It is this data that makes the dystopian social-credit system, where individuals’ ability to travel or buy services depends on their social score, possible even to imagine. A system in which people receive deductions from the social-credit score for associating with low-rated people or missing a restaurant reservation is only possible if that associating and reserving is done on an app to which government systems have access.

Social-credit system

The way that the social-credit system scores people on their associations gets to what, for Griffiths, is the real aim of the Chinese internet censorship. It is not, he argues, about information as such, but about disrupting any organisations of solidarity outside the state. This is why Falun Gong and Uyghur and Tibetan organisations have been subject to particularly harsh censorship. This included the internet blackout in Xinjiang in 2009, which removed internet access, texting and long-distance phone calls from twenty-million people for almost a year, in response to half a day of protests by Uyghurs against racist violence. In this, as in other aspects of repression, the Chinese state appears to have used Xinjiang as a testing ground for techniques it would then deploy wherever necessary. In 2016, a new cyber-security law gave state officials the powers to cut off the internet to their areas at will.

As Griffiths shows, the Chinese model has proved a successful export to Russia and to African countries like Uganda in which China has influence. It seems unlikely that it would be exportable to the West in its current form, but this is no reason for complacency about our comparative internet freedom. The centrality to the Chinese system of tech companies who want to carve out a place in every aspect of their users’ lives indicates that the gulf between the cyber-sovereignty and cyber-libertarian versions of the internet may not be as great as we think.

What is to be done?

While it is not on the scale of the Great Firewall, government censorship of the internet is hardly unknown in the West, as seen for example in the Catalonia independence campaign, where a number of pro-independence websites were shut down by the Spanish government and apps removed from app stores. Facebook, Twitter etc.also engage in the censorship of a range of views and campaigns, such as of Black Lives Matter.

The point here is not simply that censorship exists in the West just it does in China, although this is true, but that the idea that the internet is essentially free in the West is an illusion. In both China and the West, the internet is controlled by a combination of government and tech companies. The balance in this combination is different in different systems, but the nature of the constitutive parts remains the same. As Griffiths points out, ‘“information wants to be free” was always more about the freedom of companies to make money than the ability of users to share information without fear or restriction’ (p.313).

That ceding more areas of our lives to tech companies might not a good idea is not a particularly controversial suggestion. What else we can and should do with the understanding that Facebook and Twitter are no more acting for our benefit than WeChat and Alibaba are for Chinese citizens, is less easy. Griffiths’ answer is that we have to replace the tech companies’ internet that we have with one based on co-operative ownership and control. It is difficult to disagree with this in principle, but quite how we would do that within the current system is harder to see. In practice, such a goal may well require such a fundamental change to how our system works that it would be a revolutionary demand. It may not be realistic to imagine that we could build an internet away from corporate and state interests in order to allow us to build a new system. There are no short cuts to building the revolution with the imperfect tools we have now.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.