The truth is not always popular, especially in countries where watered-down reality and propaganda are the diet of choice. Once people have information, they have power—to think, to speak, to act—and this can be a real problem for governments who fear political and cultural destabilization. So you can imagine how the internet, aglow with knowledge, news, and analysis, poses a serious threat to certain world powers, like The Communist Party of China, who want to ensure their citizens remain in the dark, their actions weighted down by blindness and censorship.
In the case of mainland China, the government has not even pretended to court an open relationship with basic internet freedom. Through a combination of legislative and technological actions known as the Great Firewall of China, the Communist Party has imposed stiff regulations on their country’s access to cyberspace. While censorship has been always been a security blanket for their government, China’s domestic manhandling of the internet has not only criminalized certain online speech, it has blocked all sorts of content—from keywords to incendiary websites to search results, all while minimizing cross-border network traffic. They have essentially created their own massive firewall—but instead of keeping out exploits, they are keeping out information and, in many cases, business. China’s draconian attitude towards free speech is no secret—they have cultivated a surveillance-based culture for centuries. And yet, their massive denial of the world’s biggest pool of information continues to be a social and political marvel.
As a gateway to the world’s narrative, the internet is a shining symbol of unfettered information. It has also become an invaluable tool in societies where information is viewed as an asset—and as a method for cutting through questions to arrive at immediate answers. It solves problems and it creates opportunity. Of course, these online expectations have come under fire recently as fake news and repurposing of the “truth” has swept across the online world, affecting everything from politics to murder. But despite its shortcomings and vulnerabilities, the internet still offers one of the few ways—aside from the traditional methods of cracking open a book or actually speaking to someone—to glean a certain depth of information. And as a result, the Chinese government, who vehemently opposes the notion of a free society, has snatched this liberty away from its people and essentially become an enemy of the internet, an enemy of truth.
People in the U.S. tend to take their privacy for granted, as it has always been mostly available to them. But for those who worry about the dwindling nature of these privileges, China’s Firewall offers a cautionary tale about government interference and surveillance. In 2003, China began a massive campaign known as the “Golden Shield Project,” which set up a system of hardware and software to monitor domestic online activity, both professional and personal. Damning behavior includes things like calls to protest, criticisms on nationalism, or politically sensitive language—all acts that would warrant immediate search, seizure, and arrest. These blocked sites are not associated with pornography or violence or unpatriotic rhetoric, but rather involve basic day-to-day platforms like Google mail and social media.
Internet blocking tactics like Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and encrypted email do provide some movement around these stifling restrictions, but even their use is considered risky. For the past year, the Chinese government has been trying to make VPNs harder to access—recently imprisoning a small vendor of evasive software for six years—and will likely only stiffen these regulations as time goes on. In other words, the Chinese campaign against the internet is by no means on its way out—quite the opposite. When it comes to internet law, the Chinese have been infamously late to the game. In fact, they only instituted their first bit of cyber legislation in 1997 when they passed CL97 outlawing various online crimes like distributing pornography or messing with government entities.
The Chinese purposefully left these laws open to interpretation so as to cast a wider punitive net and tailor the legal definition to suit their changing needs. This lack of specifics has justified the Great Firewall and provided the perfect explanation for governments trying to interfere in the online lives of their citizens. Much like the U.S., China’s government also reserves the right to play the “national security” card whenever they deem it appropriate, especially if they are unhappy with the way certain information is being handled. According to this model, social stability and morality must be maintained in just the right way—or else. Because the internet is a robust network of the people and ultimately for the people, it’s always threatening to wiggle out of the government’s control at any moment and corrupt the tenuous complacency of the masses.
Despite China’s dark relationship with online freedom, most Americans have divorced themselves—both intellectually and emotionally—from concerns about their privacy, living comfortably with the notion that their internet is somehow kinder, gentler, and more loyal. And to a certain extent, they are right—that is, until we remember how the U.S. government also partakes in some overt cyber monitoring of their own citizens, albeit in a far less obvious way. But in fact, the Department of Justice recently requested roughly 1.3 million IP addresses linked to the identities of users protesting against President Donald Trump. While this is clearly a violation of the Constitution’s First Amendment, it is apparently not a problem for the U.S. government who, like the Chinese, feel it is within their right to scrutinize the online behavior others without permission. So while the U.S. has clearly not sunk to the level of using a firewall against its own people, the slope is a slippery one. And the Chinese Firewall is here to make sure the internet doesn’t go too far.