Over the years, the topic of Internet censorship gradually became a hot button issue. Not in the sense that it is controversial, but more so that there is an ongoing battle to mitigate efforts aiming to completely control it. The worst-case scenario is total suppression pertaining to the access and publishing of certain things online. Sure, there are some groups with good intentions, but those with malicious intent overpower them. This renders the very idea of censoring the Internet reprehensible, thus many fight to keep it at bay.
Where you stand is subjective, but it is easy to see why this topic elicits strong reactions.
When you go on Google and type in “internet censorship,” chances are one of the first search results typically involves China. Given its reputation for being highly restrictive with certain fields, this should come as no surprise. They already have bans on things that would be innocuous in any other country. From crypto mining to even Winnie the Pooh, they have that notoriety for a good reason. So it makes sense that they would also have, shall we say, unfavorable viewpoints concerning Internet censorship.
This is not a recent development, either. This has been a continuing issue for years, dating back to around the late 1990s and early 2000s. Specifically, following 1994 with the arrival of the Internet to China. Summing up both the political and ideological background of Internet censorship can be done with a single quote. Not only that but a quote that is among Deng Xiaoping’s (a former politician) favorite sayings in the early 1980s:
“If you open a window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in.”
How did this all begin?
China is among the most censorious nations in the world; some argue it is the leading one. Jeremy Daum, a senior fellow at the Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center, speaks of how China handles speech issues. According to him, they use a “big stick bludgeon technique that doesn’t give people enough guidance or clarity and leaves people guessing and unsure.” He also notes that “the laws for what counts as illegal or now ‘negative content’ are quite vague.”
Surprisingly, there was once a time when the Internet was becoming a dynamic political space for citizens of China. If that is the case, then why is it the exact opposite nowadays?
The Internet’s 1994 arrival to the country marked it as a tool for the budding “socialist market economy.” As its availability gradually began to rise, it would become a frequent communication platform. What’s more, it was an incredibly important tool for information sharing. Meeting the Chinese government’s expectations, the number of Internet users in China would soar. Shortly after its introduction, the statistic was 0%, but by 2009, it was at 28.8%.
The change was clearly on the horizon, though. Four years after the Internet’s arrival, the Communist Party of China (CPC) was in fear of what the China Democracy Party (CDP) would do. The organization of this group was in contravention of the “Four Cardinal Principles.” The Communist Party was of the belief that the CDP would generate a new network. One so powerful that the party elites may not be able to control it. In response to this fear, the CDP was banned, which would then lead to various arrests and imprisonments.
For the greater good… supposedly
Something else would occur that same year, and that was the creation of the ‘Golden Shield project.’ The duration of the first part of the project was eight years and its completion was in 2006. The second part would commence in 2006 and end in 2008.
For those unaware, the Golden Shield project was a database project that was beneficial for the government. It would allow them to access citizen records. With this access, they are able to connect China’s security organizations with one another. The government also had the ability to delete any comments online that they saw as harmful to the Chinese government.
In December of 2002, 300 leading members of the Golden Shield project came from 31 provinces and cities across China. They became participants in a four-day inaugural “Comprehensive Exhibition on Chinese Information System”. There was an exhibition that had many Western technology products available. Internet security, video monitoring, and facial recognition systems were all purchased. According to Amnesty International, the Chinese government employed roughly 30,000–50,000 Internet police to impose Internet laws.
For many, these laws appear extreme, but the Chinese government does not share that mindset. To them, censorship is a method that prevents and effectively eliminates “risks in the ideological field from the Internet.”
So, for a long time, Internet censorship was quietly being dealt with by the government. Overall, it did not reach the extreme measures that it eventually would in 2012. Why 2012? Because that was when Xi Jinping became president.
Xi Jinping is a prominent figure in China right now. He has a role in the CPC, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and the Central Military Commission (CMC). Since 2012, he has been the highest-ranking official in China. For his efforts, he would officially receive the title of “leadership core” from the CPC in 2016.
In December of 2015, Xi would establish his vision for the future of the Internet in China. Warning against foreign interference, he makes the following statement:
“We should respect the right of individual countries to independently choose their own path of cyber-development in other countries’ internal affairs.”
In Xi’s eyes, there is no discernible divergence between the virtual world and the real world. To him, both worlds need to express the exact same political values and ideals. Under his control, foreign content providers were starting to notice that their access to China was starting to shrink. They are gradually being forced out by Xi’s ideological war. What’s more, by his desire for Chinese companies to utterly dominate the country’s speedily increasing online economy.
Generally speaking, the West’s version of the Internet places heavy emphasis on freedom of information flow. Xi, meanwhile, tends to portray it as a total denouncement of the values of the Chinese government. Overseas, he proclaims China’s sovereign right to officially decide what constitutes harmful content.
There is a sense that simply acknowledging these efforts to wholly control the Internet are not very becoming. In fact, they could be embarrassing, coming across as a sign of authoritarian sensitivity to outsiders. Xi does not take this route, however. Instead, he is making an attempt to make his vision into a model for other countries to follow. This vision is that of a “Chinanet,” which is a term that blogger, Michael Anti, coined.
There is a notable challenge for China’s leadership that comes from this. It needs to continuously preserve what it identifies as the advantages of the Internet without allowing technology to accelerate political change. For proper “Chinanet” maintenance, Xi appears to be more than willing to accept the costs. Specifically, that of economic development, creative expression, and the development of civil society. Above all else, he seems willing to sacrifice government credibility.
Brand new regulations
Chinese authorities are in the midst of approving a new set of comprehensive regulations. These regulations expand the overall scope of online censorship. They can stress the fight against negative content and build platforms that are comparatively more liable for content violations.
China previously had an array of separate regulations that were floating around. These range from chat groups to live-streaming to, of course, news media. However, the new “Provisions on the Governance of the Online Information Content Ecosystem” unify them. Doing so makes them a considerably more comprehensible system consisting of global rules for everything occurring on the country’s Internet. These new rules garnered approval in the middle of December and will officially carry out in March.
The primary targets of these new regulations are content producers, platforms, and Internet users. It describes what type of content should be deemed illegal, have restrictions for supposedly being “negative,” or receive active promotion.
The new regulations would command content producers to “employ measures to prevent and resist the making, reproduction or publication of negative information.” These will include the following points:
- Using “exaggerated titles”
- Any form of gossip
- Immoral comments about “natural disasters, major accidents, or other disasters”
- Pretty much anything pertaining to sexual innuendos or is “readily associated with sex”
- Gore or horror
- Certain things that could potentially persuade minors to engage in unsafe behaviors or “violate social mores”
At its core, negative content, in a broad sense, is anything that would have an unfavorable impact on the Internet ecosystem. As you can see, this ranges from the gossip about a person or organization to damaging actions that minors could replicate.
China isn’t the only country that is gaining notoriety for its Internet censorship. Russia also has its own strong sense of censorship. In their case, the country is gradually cutting off its citizens’ access to specific sections of the Internet. The Russian government and private Internet service providers are collaborating in an effort to close off entire Internet branches.
The Russian government is making it so that these ISPs direct all data to routing points that the government controls. The country states that this is so that they can prevent foreign nations from cutting Russia off from the Internet. This is specifically a response to it meddling with elections and an array of other malicious activities. However, Internet freedom activists see it as part of a larger effort to further censor the Internet.
There is a law that prohibits “abuse of mass media freedom.” It effectively implements a process for shutting down online media outlets. In March of 2018, the bill was signed into law. This bill applies fines for those seemingly spreading “fake news” and showing disrespect toward the state authorities. The government is who determines this.
In recent events, Russia’s testing of a closed-off version of the Internet was a success. Details concerning the elements of the test were vague, but apparently ordinary users did not notice any changes. Prof Alan Woodward, a computer scientist at the University of Surrey, speaks of the test:
“Sadly, the Russian direction of travel is just another step in the increasing breaking-up of the internet … Increasingly, authoritarian countries that want to control what citizens see are looking at what Iran and China have already done. It means people will not have access to dialogue about what is going on in their own country, they will be kept within their own bubble.”
What’s at stake in China?
To reiterate, Xi’s increasing dominance over the Internet does not come without costs. It goes without saying that complete Internet control is not without its risks. The question is whether or not the government is willing to put it on the line. An Internet that lacks the ability to work efficiently or has limits to information access hinders economic growth. The Internet in China is rather infamous for its unreliability. In fact, it ranks as the 91st pertaining to the world of speed.
Scientific innovation is also something that could be at risk. Following the VPN crackdown, a Chinese biologist would write an essay called Why Do Scientists Need Google? In it, he writes:
“If a country wants to make this many scientists take out time from the short duration of their professional lives to research technology for climbing over the Great Firewall and to install and to continually upgrade every kind of software for routers, computers, tablets, and mobile devices, no matter that this behavior wastes a great amount of time; it is all completely ridiculous.”
Government and leadership credibility
Something that is more difficult to predict – let alone avoid – is what this will do to Chinese leadership credibility. A subject of criticism is the Great Firewall, a combination of legislative actions and technologies that the PRC enforces. Web users are going so far as to use puns to ridicule the censorship system of China.
They use certain things to their advantage when it comes to ridicule. For example, phrases such as “strong nation” and “wall nation” share a phonetic pronunciation in Chinese. Because of this, many people are beginning to apply the phrase “wall nation” in reference to China. Those who desire total control over the issuing and viewing of content are also on the receiving end of mockery.
Then again, we should keep in mind that China put a ban on Winnie the Pooh because people compare Xi to him. To many, this is a tell-tale hint that the government’s credibility is already on shaky ground at best.
Impact on trade
Government steps towards disturbing Internet access are usually seen as infringing upon the right to freedom of expression. The same thing apples to measures that prevent the dissemination of information online. We are now starting to see industry actors, as well as open Internet advocates, leading a particular charge. One that considers censorship to be an antithetical practice, especially to the global trading system. And at the center of the debate is, of course, China. And why wouldn’t it be the focus? The country holds a substantial amount of market power in the global economy.
The implications of commercial censorship have a broad range. There is restraining key sales channels for exporters to China and either limiting or prohibiting foreign companies from providing Internet services. In addition, there is extraterritorial censorship of Internet sites and services from overseas. According to Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) at a recent hearing on censorship and trade:
“The actions undertaken by China are clearly insidious and counter to the necessary conditions of a fair global economic system.”
While this may be the case, global trade rules and institutions are incompetent at altering China’s approach. Likewise, they cannot temper the impacts of China’s censorship has on the globe.
Updated on September 11, 2020
The government persists, so what could it mean?
With blockage of scientific breakthroughs and already dubious credibility, one would think the government would show some leniency. Contrary to that belief, the government is enduring. It seems more than willing to face the economic and scientific costs. Moreover, it is ready to face potential damage to its validity. Whatever it takes to garner more control over the Internet.
In international terms, Beijing’s cyber-policy serves as a sign. One that illustrates the challenge that China – a more dominant China – will present to the liberal world order. There is also a notable contradiction that stems from China’s efforts to establish itself as a leader in globalization. In doing so, it simultaneously encourages a model of Internet sovereignty. What’s more, it obstructs its cyber-world from crucial information and investment from overseas.
How this can affect the rest of the world is difficult to properly determine. While China hopes to influence how other countries should censor the Internet, it will likely be trickier than they think. Many are fighting their regulations and will, in all probability continue to fight them.