By: Carla White
The Great Firewall of China has been a defining measure in online censorship ever since the country was named enemy of the internet in 2013. As a country famed for its history of closed border politics, their attitude towards internet accessibility is unsurprising. However, with 87 percent of internet users now believing that online access is a basic human right, exploring the ethical implications of Chinese policy is essential. As the country becomes a mature economic superpower, it has a responsibility to connect with the rest of the developed world. This global relationship cannot be achieved while they maintain an online blackout.
Though the Great Firewall may be the most famous of China’s harsh social control measures, it’s not the only element that secures China’s position as an enemy to free thought. Understanding the many facets of government protocol and punishment when it comes to surfing the net will provide a clearer picture for those exploring China’s online world.
To further explore, we must clarify the already established factors of the ‘Firewall.’
The Great Firewall Explained
“The Great Firewall” refers to the high levels of online censorship in China. The strict restrictions for Chinese IP addresses cover numerous types of websites, for a variety of reasons. As the national government promotes a strict political regime, their long blacklist includes any site that offers an alternate political narrative.
Unfortunately, this covers many of the most-used domains on the web. All Google services, social media, and international news sites fail to bypass the censors. Similarly, certain search terms and tags are also targeted. For example, any site containing keywords or phrases surrounding the Tiananmen Square massacre is withdrawn automatically. In fact, the entire year of 1989 is absent from Chinese websites and textbooks.
The Great Firewall has achieved its goal. Today, many millennial Chinese do not know about the legendary student protest. The few elite, who have access to alternative media and knowledge of the protest, tend to respond with apathy. The spoon-fed nationalism with which they have become accustomed convinces them the government was at least somewhat justified for their actions.
Although censorship is the most discussed and opposed online measure in China, it is by no means the only issue to cause concern regarding civil liberty in the country.
In a world of proxy networks and fake IP addresses, the Chinese censorship program is not very effective. It’s easy for individual citizens to install applications to bypass blocks and access a Western version of the internet. Already 29 percent of the population are using virtual private networks. However, combined with the increasingly strict surveillance within the country, China manages to keep their internet on lockdown.
In 2016, reports surfaced that the government was also creating a detailed social catalog. After years of watching and collecting data from each citizen, the next task was to find a system that could process and analyze these results in a functional way. It seems the efforts have paid off, as US intelligence firm Stratfor recently unveiled some notable developments.
Over the last five years, 12,000 low-ranking officials were hired to collect data from every household in the country. Combined with surveillance cameras and internet monitoring, they have created a detailed database. Using similar analytics as big corporations employ for use in targeted advertising, the aim is to monitor and quell potential unrest. A similar law, which obliges Chinese-based companies to hand over all data to the government, is also involved in this drive towards mass surveillance.
Although legislation regarding domestic spying is not unique to China, its human rights history warrants attention. While most governments aim to quash violent attacks, in China, one can be penalized for merely talking about the wrong thing. It’s understandable, therefore, why human rights groups are worried by larger-scope domestic surveillance. Particularly as the country’s international policy seems to also follow a similar ethos.
When “enemies of the internet” are discussed, the usual image painted is of countries with little domestic access. Because of this, international cyberpolicy is often excluded from the discussion. However, the fact is that China has simultaneously created experts in cyberactivity and a general public who remain digitally ignorant. Their state-sponsored hackers are some of the most notorious worldwide. They obtained this reputation after many countless Western corporations and government organizations spoke out against the constant online espionage.
Many cyberexperts have theorized that the ongoing program is part of China’s bid to be the world’s greatest superpower. Instead of hacking to cause inconvenience, their aim is gather as much sensitive information as possible. In January 2010, Google was the first to take a stand against the Chinese government. They posted an article detailing a sophisticated intrusion that stole data from the company. After reviewing the attack, it became clear that many other companies had also suffered breaches.
Four years later, the U.S. government determined it was time to take a stand on the constant online bombardment from the East. By bringing an indictment against five notorious hackers, it called out the Chinese government in a way no-one else yet had. The cybercriminals, members of the China’s People’s Liberation Army, were charged with cyber espionage, including stealing sensitive data from five U.S. companies and one labor union. While it’s unlikely that these hackers will ever end up in court, this action set a new precedent that interstate cybercrime would not be tolerated.
The Great Firewall of China is an unavoidable threat to a free and fair internet. However, the ongoing activities behind closed doors provide equal cause for concern. As the World Wide Web continues to connect countries and drive globalization, states should be more prepared to pursue breaches of online freedom and privacy across the globe.
Carla White is an online journalist who specializes in international politics and cybersecurity. She is well-versed the language of computers and understands all the intricate details. She worries that the world won’t take cyberthreats seriously until it’s too late.
Photo by Tom Thai