In 2000, President Bill Clinton gave a speech in which he said that the Chinese government’s efforts to control the Internet would be as successful as efforts to “nail Jello to the wall.” Sixteen years later, we have a better idea of just how successful those efforts have actually been. According to Adam Segal, director of the digital and cyberspace policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of a new book, “The Hacked World Order: How Nations Fight, Trade, Maneuver, and Manipulate in the Digital Age,” China and other authoritarian government have at least partially succeeded in gaining control of online speech. Steven Melendez at Fast Company reports:
“I think the assumption would be if we got the right technology in the right hands, old bureaucracy and powerful organizations couldn’t keep up,” Segal told Fast Company. “What we’ve found is they brought significant resources to the table and they were able to structure their Internet in ways that significantly restrict online freedom.”
China’s government, in particular, realized early on that the Internet was both vital to the country’s economic growth—and a threat to the stability of the Communist regime, he says.
“They always kind of looked at it as a double-edged sword,” says Segal, who is also CFR’s Maurice R. Greenberg senior fellow for China studies.
And they successfully took a three-pronged approach, implementing the technological filters collectively known as the Great Firewall, giving Internet providers and web hosts a powerful incentive to censor content by holding them liable for their users’ posts and by simply introducing uncertainty about what’s allowed online, leading everyday users to censor themselves, Segal argues. [Source]
Over the years, Chinese Internet users have learned techniques and tools to skirt the Great Firewall—most commonly by employing Virtual Private Networks, or VPNs. But even those are subject to government control, as Internet users in Beijing are finding out during recent National People’s Congress meetings. From Li Jing at The South China Morning Post:
Virtual private network users and one provider said services had been disrupted or blocked during the National People’s Congress and a meeting of China’s main political advisory body.
[…] Some tech-savvy young people in China have also expressed frustration.
They rely on the services to carry out activities such as posting photographs on Instagram, watching video streams on Youtube, playing online games or checking the Twitter updates on South Korean pop stars.
One white-collar worker from Shenzhen on business in Beijing, who asked not to be named, said the disruption to the VPN service seemed greater in the capital as it was working in their home city on Monday. [Source]
The cat-and-mouse game between Internet users and government censors continues. For Ars Technica, Ramon Lobato reports on his own research into the usage and censorship of VPNs in China and elsewhere:
As part of an international research project, a team of digital media researchers and I have been tracking and comparing international trends in VPN use, culture, and regulation. Over the last year, we have been studying how VPNs (and other privacy software) are being used for entertainment, politics, and communication in different countries. The results have been eye-opening.
One of the emerging themes is that different governments take different approaches to regulating VPNs. In countries with strong Internet censorship, a common strategy is a combination of legislative bans and network-level blocks. In China, home to the world’s most sophisticated Internet censorship system, numerous VPN websites have been taken offline under the guise of a crackdown on unlicensed telecoms services. VPN traffic has been disrupted via deep-packet inspection and port blocking, too. Similar ban-and-block systems are in place in several Gulf states, including Bahrain, Oman, and Saudi Arabia, and in Pakistan. Reports suggest that Russia has been considering such a move. [Source]