Decentralization of Internet Control Leaves Cracks

In China, when major events unfold, a combination of government directives, keyword filtering, post deletion, paid pro-government commentary, and other forms of censorship and guides the narrative in the direction that the state determines. In a recent study, University of Michigan’s Mary Gallagher and Blake Miller analyzed 50 million comments on Chinese social media and news posts about three major events: the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, the ruling of the International Tribunal on the South China Sea Disputes between China and the Philippines, and the explosions in the Port of Tianjin in August 2015. They found considerable diversity in responses from users whom they believe to be members of the “Fifty Cent Party,” or paid government commentators, which they wrote about for the Washington Post:

Our findings suggest that information control in China is more varied and decentralized than we thought, as a Washington Post editorial also argued. China’s ability to control information is impressive, but decentralization makes the system hard to tightly control. For example, although the surveillance powers granted by China’s recently issued Cybersecurity Law are formidable, its implementation has been far from disciplined. A recent Washington Post report details how private data obtained using these new powers is being openly sold on the market, perhaps by rogue government officials.

In the Tianjin crisis, the quick and unified online response suggests a great deal of government planning, coordination and iterative updating of information strategies. But the response to the South China Sea ruling points to a lack of preparation and coordination — and perhaps even disagreement between different parts of the government.

These moves suggest that Beijing is taking new steps to solidify control over the Web — and making sure what’s out there on the Internet are the messages that the CCP wants China’s citizens to read. [Source]

While the tactics revealed by Gallagher and Miller’s research may point to a sophisticated, flexible, and reactive effort at information control, GreatFire’s Charlie Smith argued to Index on Censorship that the Chinese government’s attempts at creating “cyber sovereignty”–the idea that each country has the right to control the internet within their territory–are misguided:

Index: The Chinese government warned in December that its controls on the internet are necessary to prevent foreign powers from “destabilising the state”. Would Great Fire be considered to be associated with such powers? What would be the consequences of this?

Smith: I don’t think the Chinese authorities fully understand how the internet works. They have this great image in their mind of creating “cyber sovereignty” but this is an impossible task. The internet by nature is international. Information is exchanged across borders. So, yes, foreign powers are destabilising China’s internet every minute. In the opinion of the Chinese authorities, I guess this happens every time somebody says “Xi Jinping is a totalitarian despot” or shares a photo of the great leader with his pants too high.

But even if the authorities were able to establish what they think is “cyber sovereignty”, they would quickly find that many Chinese also like saying nasty things about Xi Dada. [Source]