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Chinese censorship is coming The internet has never been so authoritarian

Why are we copying Beijing? (ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images)

Why are we copying Beijing? (ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images)


August 9, 2021   5 mins

Be honest — did you read UnHerd’s “cookie policy” just now, before you clicked “accept and close”? Have you ever read one of those notices? Or do you, like me, agree to anything and everything so long as you can get to the good stuff more quickly?

The reason these annoying little pop-ups exist at all is thanks to a recent-ish law which helps you understand what’s being collected about you online. It’s something that probably deserves a moment of your attention. But we’re spending more and more time online; who wants to waste it checking 20 tedious Ts&Cs a day?

The future of the internet will come down to tiny things like this: subtle decisions made at the engineering or regulatory level — stuff which most of us ignore because we can’t be bothered to find out what it’s all about. Are you curious about “digital object architecture”? Do you want to know who’s behind the “Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers”? A colleague of mine once spent weeks tracking this stuff — only to conclude that internet protocols are “simply too impenetrable and boring to feel angry about”. Nobody cares. Nobody, except the autocrats of the world, who are quietly trying to wrestle control over various working groups and technical decisions — to make sure they can tame the digital beast.

Given our abject dependency on it, it’s scary to think of the internet as a flimsy experiment. But it’s already changed shape several times over its short life: from a government-funded research project for military scientists, to an academic network, to a vehicle for e-commerce and now a platform for social content. Through it all one thing remained constant, in theory if not always in practice: the idea that the internet was a single open network which anyone could join, and where everything was connected via a standard set of protocols and rules.

According to a new book, that’s about to change. Four Internets argues that the era of a single internet might be drawing to a close, replaced by a balkanised network of different versions living alongside each other. Scholars Wendy Hall and Kieron O’Hara reckon four internets in particular are already taking shape.

The “Silicon Valley” model is open and libertarian — anyone can join the network, no single authority is in charge and there are few rules about what sort of information can be transported across the network. Its modus operandi is to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. This is the original vision and remains just about still on top.

The “Washington DC” version, by contrast, prioritises data collection and corporate interests. It doesn’t mind big tech firms collecting massive amounts of information on citizens, providing it generates profits and excellent products for consumers to enjoy.

Then there’s the “Brussels bourgeois” model which is “ordered, respectful, polite, decent, well-behaved, well- mannered, and considerate” (and also a little dull). Preferred by most EU countries, it is quick to launch anti-trust cases and punish companies that “move quickly and break things”. It is the Brussels vision that created “GDPR” privacy rules, the “right to be forgotten” and those damn cookie laws.

Finally, there is the fast-developing “Beijing” internet, which is paternalistic and tightly controlled by the government. Back in 2000, Bill Clinton told a Chinese trade delegation that cracking down on the internet would be like “trying to nail jello to the wall 
 good luck”. But over the last 20 years the Chinese government has gradually brought the internet to heel through its doctrine of “cyber-sovereignty”. They’ve done it slowly and cleverly: China’s “deep packet inspection” technology checks what’s coming in from the rest of the world; IP addresses they don’t approve of are turned away. All internet content providers are held liable for what appears on their websites, under an insidious “you yourself decide” code, which encourages everyone to turn into draconian self-censors to avoid trouble.

Where does the UK stand in all of this? It’s hard to imagine our government would have either the competence or the inclination to go as far as China’s, but what if the Beijing model is the future? In his recent book The Great Firewall of China, James Griffiths argues the Chinese model is starting to spread. Most visibly in Africa, where various governments are happy to buy up cheap, decent Chinese technology — and in some cases the surveillance or AI technology that can help them stay in charge. Although as some analysts have argued, it’s not always Beijing pushing the Beijing model — Western companies are also happy to assist snooping autocrats with cheque books. At home, Westminster is liable to fall for the allure of control. While we might not import Chinese technology itself — especially after the furore with Huawei and the 5G network — the promise of being in charge of the internet is irresistible.

And so, our internet is getting increasingly authoritarian. You may recall the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 (aka the “Snoopers Charter”), which, among other things, required internet companies to keep a record of the websites you visit for a year. Earlier this year it was revealed that the government was testing a creepy new tool as part of the Act — surveillance technology that could track and record everything that every single person in the country does on the internet. Funnily enough, the Chinese government cited the Snoopers Charters when defending their own draconian surveillance techniques.

There also seems to be a running game of cat and mouse between the police and campaign groups over the use of facial recognition technology. Last year the Court of Appeals deemed that South Wales Police’s use of live facial recognition technology was unlawful — a win for campaigners. But this year some forces started trialling retrospective facial recognition technology instead.

Then there’s the proposed Online Harm Bill, currently inching through Parliament, which aims to make companies more responsible for user safety on their platforms. It will force tech firms to take on a “duty of care” and remove “harmful content” while keeping up “democratically important” stuff. There’s certainly plenty of bad stuff online, but phrases like “duty of care” and “harmful content” are terrifyingly broad — and reminiscent of China’s “you yourself decide” code. If the British bill passes, it will invariably mean proactive and excessive censorship — with government setting the tone.

And it probably will pass, because the truth is the public seem to quite like the Beijing model, even if they wouldn’t call it that. According to a recent YouGov survey, 78% of us want users to disclose their real identity when signing up on social media — a petition about this hit almost 700,000 signatures recently. It’s easy to understand the instinct — this followed the controversy over racist attacks on England footballers after the team lost the European Championship final, much of which came from anonymous social media accounts. Labour MPs Margaret Hodge, Angela Rayner and Jess Philips have all argued that de-anonymising users will force them to be accountable for their actions.

If the goal is noble, the method is not. For one thing, it’s not clear that such a move would deal with the problem, given a decent chunk of online abuse comes from anonymous users overseas (should we ban them too? How?) Besides, cyber-disinhibition is also caused by the lack of face-to-face, immediate contact, which wouldn’t change — unless of course the government forced us to hand-deliver our tweets and posts in person to the recipient. And besides, after everything we know about Facebook, are we sure we really want to hand our passports or driving licenses over to Zuck? What of those who have good reason to stay anonymous online — the whistleblower, the undercover journalist, the teen in a self-help group?

Anonymity used to be seen as a benefit of online life: a chance to say what you really think, to safely explore new ideas and new identities. “On the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog,” went the famous New Yorker cartoon, and it wasn’t meant as an insult. Now Fido and Patch are a menace to society.

When you add this all up, it’s possible to see the UK drifting accidentally into its very own authoritarian internet. Not up to Beijing’s Olympian standards, perhaps, but where censorship in the name of harmony trumps all and where surveillance is built in to the rules and the tech.

As the internet becomes more embedded in our everyday life, that will take on an even more sinister meaning. Any minor infraction in our self-driving cars will result in a system override and an automatic locked-door ride to the nearest police station (“in the interests of pedestrian safety!”). Smart fridges will hector you about meat consumption levels and simply refuse to open if you’ve been recorded saying anything rude or offensive (“in the interests of the nation’s health!”). The internet will become a far more sanitised, controlled and monitored place than it already is — and by extension so will all of us.


is the author of The People Vs Tech (2018) & The Dark Net (2015)’. 

JamieJBartlett

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David Yetter
David Yetter
2 years ago

I think after the destruction of Parler by the giants of Silicon Valley, the notion that the open internet anyone can join should be called the “Silicon Valley” model needs rethinking.

Jonathan Ellman
Jonathan Ellman
2 years ago

Rather than forcing people to register for social media, make it voluntary but allow people the option of only seeing posts from registered accounts. That way, the anonymous trolls can be instantly blocked by those who wish.

Jonathan Bagley
Jonathan Bagley
2 years ago

I agree. I’ve suggested this many times, but it doesn’t appear to have any support.

Jonathan Ellman
Jonathan Ellman
2 years ago

Keep suggesting it. Maybe it will eventually snowball.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

There is another way to encourage better behaviour from FB and Twitter uses and that is to make people pay for it. This is not foolproof of course.

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
2 years ago

Perhaps right with regards to FB and twitter…
But within weeks, months there will be another platform and another free way of doing it.
Completely agree with your sentiment, but the genie’s out of the box and halfway on its way to an all expenses holiday in the Seychelles

Last edited 2 years ago by A Spetzari
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

The alternative platforms are battling to attract punters though. And that is because of established networks on the original platforms.

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
2 years ago

That’s true
As soon as regulation is forced on them however, or if their freedom is prohibited in some way, people will migrate to other platforms.
Napster wasn’t the death of free (illegal) music online for example, and just paved way for other means.
It’s a real problem as governments most certainly should be getting a grip on this, but at the same time it’s hard to see how they can do it without the authoritarianism highlighted in the article. Or just without pushing it elsewhere.
It’s a modern day prohibition-style conundrum

Last edited 2 years ago by A Spetzari
Perry de Havilland
Perry de Havilland
2 years ago

If the goal is noble, the method is not”
The goal is not noble.

Mark Goodge
Mark Goodge
2 years ago

Another aspect of all this that I’ve rarely seen commented on is the extent to which Internet users’ horizons have narrowed. To many people, “The Internet” means social media, instant messaging and online shopping). But these are not the Internet, they are just services which run on the Internet. When a cabinet minister speaks approvingly of Apple’s decision to scan for SCAM on people’s phones and iPads, and suggests that Facebook should folow suit, he’s merely betraying that he doesn’t understand the difference between software and hardware, and between a device and its content. It’s like confusing a car with the road it travels on, or a bus with its passengers.
This may not matter to most people who just want to get on with their lives and use whatever services they feel most at home with. But the extent to which our lives are now increasingly conducted online, from banking to interacting with the local council, means that whoever controls the Internet controls our lives.
Nobody cares who ICANN is, or what ICANN does? Well, maybe it’s time to start caring. Because authoritarian regimes would love to have ICANN in their pocket, or replace ICANN with organisations that are already in their pocket. Arguing about whether we should have to give Facebook our personal details in order to sign up will all be rendered moot if the people who run the wires that the Internet travels over obtain the power to block people they disapprove of from even accessing Facebook.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

“According to a recent YouGov survey, 78% of us want users to disclose their real identity when signing up on social media”

And I hope this is extended to voting. Every vote made a matter of permanent and public record. Want to vote Trump? Well F* c*ing Own it Then! Sounds fair.

Hersch Schneider
Hersch Schneider
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

From your posting history, which I’ve often agreed with and given several thumbs up, I genuinely wouldn’t have had you down for one of the usual ‘shoehorn anything anti-Trump in’ types.
Has your account been hacked by one of the Guardian lot?

Dan Gleeballs
Dan Gleeballs
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Rare mis-step from you! The secret ballot is the heart of democracy. Can you imagine the bullying and cancel culture that would come out of a public voting record?