The Greatest Firewall

2019 was a substandard year for digital rights in China. TikTok, a popular Chinese-owned social networking and video-sharing service, instructed moderators to censor videos that brought up “sensitive” topics like Tiananmen Square or Tibetan independence. Gamers noted on Reddit several months ago that League of Legends, a popular multiplayer online game, prohibited its users from changing status messages to include the word “Uyghur,” in reference to a minority ethnic group in the western region of Xinjiang. And ahead of the Taiwanese elections on January 11th, disinformation campaigns swirled around Tsai Ing-wen, the country’s president loathed by Beijing.

Internment camps in Xinjiang and the protests in Hong Kong received significant coverage in Western media, often with geopolitical ramifications. After Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted an image voicing support for the protests in Hong Kong, it took all of a few days for the Chinese leagues, sponsors, partners, and streaming services to cut ties with both the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the Rockets. In a Reuters interview, NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum later said that basketball is the most popular sport in China, with some 300 million players across the country.

The entanglement between the Chinese government and digital tools is undeniable. Although the Internet posed a threat to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) early on, it is increasingly viewed as a means to further foreign policy aims. Censorship of online content can boost nationalism or shape relations with countries in the region, promote regional economic projects like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), or influence the outcome of territorial disputes. But it can be used for domestic purposes too, by creating anti-competitive practices that give an edge to Internet businesses in China.

There have been several notable instances of foreign tech businesses that comply with censorship laws in return for access to the Chinese market. One of the criticisms levied against such firms is that operating in China could lead to a spillover effect and provide more legitimacy to censorship practices. This has created a huge debate around whether tech firms can provide a limited version of digital services (i.e. search engines, apps, infrastructure) while continuing to maintain values like openness and competition.

Building Reality

According to the American scholar James Carey, communication is not just a means of transmitting information, but a “symbolic process whereby reality is produced, maintained, repaired, and transformed.” Per this ritual view of communication, the production and reproduction of shared beliefs can apply to the building of community culture and reinforces the importance of symbols in framing human conversation; from Carey:

A ritual view of communication will focus on different range of problems in examining a newspaper. It will, for example, view reading a newspaper less as sending or gaining information and more as attending a mass, a situation in which nothing new is learned but in which a particular view of the world is portrayed and confirmed. News reading, and writing, is a ritual act and moreover a dramatic one. What is arrayed before the reader is not pure information but a portrayal of the contending forces in the world. Moreover, as readers make their way through the paper, they engage in a continual shift of roles or of dramatic focus.

…Under a ritual view, then, news is not information but drama. It does not describe the world but portrays an arena of dramatic focus and action; it exists solely in historical time; and it invites our participation on the basis of our assuming, often vicariously, social roles within it.

In the case of the Chinese government’s legislative or technological efforts to regulate the Internet (which it achieves by blocking access to foreign websites or slowing down cross-border online traffic), Carey’s view of communication is highly pertinent. The country’s censorship infrastructure, dubbed the Great Firewall of China (GFW), aims to cherry-pick the information making its way to the broader public, and create and maintain shared beliefs that encourage the public to adopt social roles in a manufactured reality. The most effective tool for censorship has often been the people themselves; in December alone, citizens reported 12.2m pieces of “inappropriate” content, a fourfold increase from the same month in 2015.

The “portrayal of the contending forces is the world” noted by Carey is precisely why the Great Firewall is an effective mechanism for building an alternate reality. Algorithms do not only reinforce biases by filtering and censoring content; they also encourage the creation of social roles within the public. China’s state apparatus has mastered the art of manufacturing an imagined community, albeit one ostensibly based on a similar set of values, norms, or life experiences as a majority of the public.

Although much of today’s economic prosperity in China can be credited to market reforms, the same cannot be said for its partial media liberalization. The prospects of centralized technological innovation may be appealing in certain cases (self-driving vehicles, gene editing, or quantum computing), but it is a question of values that spills over into more dangerous territory. Tech firms like Tencent and Huawei are often praised for an innovative streak, but the centralized nature of their activity comes at the expense of privacy, openness, and competing ideas.

We Shall Fight on the Breaches

Deng Xiaoping, China’s leader from 1978-92 widely credited for the country’s economic revival, was a big proponent of the GFW’s ideological foundations, often saying that “if you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in.” With the wider distribution of the Internet across China in the 1990s, flies increasingly needed to be swatted away.

Initial steps to censor the Internet in China came with a preliminary set of regulations in 1997 to govern its use; from Congressional Digest:

Individuals are prohibited from using the Internet to: harm national security; disclose state secrets; or injure the interests of the state or society. Users are prohibited from using the Internet to create, replicate, retrieve, or transmit information that incites resistance to the PRC Constitution, laws, or administrative regulations; promotes the overthrow of the government or socialist system; undermines national unification; distorts the truth, spreads rumors, or destroys social order; or provides sexually suggestive material or encourages gambling, violence, or murder. Users are prohibited from engaging in activities that harm the security of computer information networks and from using networks or changing network resources without prior approval.

This framework formed the basis of the Golden Shield Project, a network security construction initiative that doubled as the state’s censorship and surveillance apparatus. Arbitrary parameters like “information that incites resistance” or “activities that harm the security of computer information networks” were beneficial to the Communist Party of China (CPC), granting it with significant leverage to crack down on news, forums, and discussions.

One of the earliest examples of Internet censorship is content relating to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. The architect of many such regulations was the Assistant Minister for Public Security, Zhu Entao. Any content that was deemed defamatory to government agencies or that brought about security problems like “manufacturing and publicizing harmful information, as well as leaking state secrets” could lead to a fine of up to 15,000 yuan (or USD $1,800). The banning process was initially uncoordinated and ad hoc, as several sites would be taken down in a particular city and stay online in another.

Enforcement has become a lot more sophisticated over time. In 2005, the government purchased hundreds of routers from Cisco Systems, a networking hardware company based out of the U.S., which provided it with a more refined censorship mechanism. A number of tech firms have since made similar concessions in return for access to the Chinese market:

  • Apple has removed listings from the App Store, including Quartz, a publication, citing that they failed to comply with Chinese laws and the company’s own guidelines.
  • Blizzard banned a professional eSports player (known as Blitzchung) from a tournament after he yelled “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our age!” during an interview.
  • Microsoft briefly blocked search results on Bing for reportedly “illegal content” and took down a post on LinkedIn which referenced Tiananmen Square.

As the market for Internet services continues growing in China, western companies face a trade-off of values: openness and competitiveness, or centralization and control. Given the growth potential within China, it will be appealing for several to opt for the latter. And while the GFW has effectively swatted away some flies in the name of national unification, there is little consistency around national censorship laws. China’s government is betting that this won’t deter business.

Community Building

The latest concession came in October, when Apple removed, a dynamic online map illustrating the developments of the Hong Kong protests, from its App Store. Reminiscent of the navigation software app Waze, plainly shows the locations of police and alerts around ongoing events nearby (albeit in this case, it includes protesters and locations of barricades and tear gas deployment).

After the People’s Daily, China’s state-run newspaper, criticized Apple for approving the app, the company quickly reversed course. It then provided a statement to the developer team for explaining its justification to remove it from the App Store:

We created the App Store to be a safe and trusted place to discover apps. We have learned that your app has been used in ways that endanger law enforcement and residents in Hong Kong.

The app displays police locations and we have verified with The Hong Kong Cybersecurity and Technology Crime Bureau that the app has been used to target and ambush police, threaten public safety, and criminals have used it to victimize residents in areas where they know there is no law enforcement. This use of your app has resulted in serious harm to these citizens.

For these reasons, we have determined that this app violates our guidelines and local laws and we have removed it from the App Store.

It was not clear, which had been used by residents and visitors to know which areas to avoid, encouraged its users to evade law enforcement any more than other (still available) live app maps. The administrator of the app later posted on Twitter that there was no evidence to support the accusation of app usage “to target and ambush police, threaten public safety, and [that] criminals have used it to victimize residents in areas where they know there is no law enforcement.” Moreover, several user reviews in the App Store suggested the app improved public safety, instead of posing a danger to Hong Kong’s residents or passersby.

Apple’s decision was complicated by the continued presence in Hong Kong of other community-generated platforms. One example of this is Waze, which is billed as a navigation app, but allows drivers to avoid both police and traffic cameras. It’s also difficult to imagine Apple and the Chinese government tracking data on over a few days and concluding that it facilitated or encouraged illegal activity.

These decisions reflect poorly on tech firms and the purported values of openness they claim to embody. In an update to iOS 13.1 days earlier, Apple removed the Taiwanese flag emoji for users in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macau, but made no mention of these changes in its release notes. While senior leadership at Apple acknowledged the public debate around pulling (with Tim Cook stating that “this decision best protects our users”), the same was not the case for the choice to remove the Taiwanese flag emoji, underscoring continued subservience to the CCP that isn’t going to abate anytime soon.

Exporting Reality

Just before midday on December 31st, 2018 (11:30am local time in Kinshasa), there was a significant drop in bandwidth in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In an act that carried into the following days and weeks, officials in the DRC cut off access to the Internet while voters awaited the results of a contentious presidential election. Advisors to President Joseph Kabila said to Reuters that digital services like the Internet and text messaging were shut off to ensure public order was preserved, and dispel any “fictitious results” that had been circulating on social media. Access was not restored until January 19th.

Internet shutdowns have become more common in a number of countries. According to NetBlocks, a civil society organization, partial or full shutdowns have been reported in countries from Cameroon to India, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Sudan, and Venezuela over the past year, frequently for political purposes. The shutdown in the DRC was only the latest iteration of a model first effectuated in Xinjiang in 2009, where Internet access was cut off for almost a year after riots broke out over disputes between migrant Uyghurs and Han Chinese. Ever since, several governments have defaulted to reasons like “public safety” or “national security” as justification for Internet shutdowns.

The GFW would be deemed a success even if it were contained in the Chinese mainland. But over the past few years, tech firms in China have been exporting tools that provide companies and governments with abilities like managing and monitoring communications online, in an effort Maria Farrell dubs “autocracy as a service” on Medium:

What rings clear is the assiduous cultivation and responsiveness of China’s technology firms to the worries of a smaller and much poorer country struggling to deal with the Internet. We don’t know how close the coordination is between Huawei’s local operatives and head office, and between tech firms in the Chinese state. We do know the Chinese officials have accompanied African intelligence officials to meetings with Huawei in the Chinese technology hub of Shenzhen, and that Huawei employees train and work alongside African officials on national cyber-surveillance teams in Uganda and Zambia, at least. We also know that when struggling countries call for help managing communications technologies, China answers. The results are human rights abuses and the export of a punitive, state-centered “sovereign Internet.”

Government-backed Chinese firms like Huawei, ZTE, and others are becoming increasingly responsible for the digital infrastructure in states across Africa. They are providing online filtering technologies and surveillance systems (read more about Zimbabwe’s strategic partnership with the facial recognition firm CloudWalk), as well as advice on controlling dissent online. China is not only exporting technology to African governments, but also a new set of norms and rules around respecting national sovereignty in cyberspace.

In the Internet’s early days, many believed that having unfettered access to information would spread values of democracy and openness. The GFW’s prevalence outside of China has proved otherwise, even leading some to call for a World Data Organization akin to the WTO, to set the standards for how individuals’ data is being used. This would have ostensible benefits from improving data privacy to boosting competition – but it may also prevent China from making further inroads in exporting its technology (and its values) to illiberal governments around the world.

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