For years, we have tried — and failed — to restrict access to pornography
Online computer games are addictive — and many parents struggle to limit the amount of time their children spend playing them. But not in China. There, the government does it for you.
In measures announced this week, the state-mandated ration for all under-18s has been reduced to just three hours per week. What’s more, these are three specific hours i.e. 8pm to 9pm on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. If you miss the thrice-weekly slot, then too bad.
According to the BBC, online gaming providers use facial recognition to stop children from logging on between 10pm and 8am — and presumably this could be used to enforce the new restrictions too.
So just how sinister is this crackdown? The idea of a screen — in your own home — that looks back at you to make sure you’re behaving as required has obvious Orwellian overtones.
Then again, one could argue that real dystopia is in the West — where we allow social media and gaming companies to snare our children’s time without restriction. Indeed, we don’t seem to much care about the access that western children have to pornography — including some of the most extreme and degrading images.
A 2015 attempt by the British Government to launch a UK-wide porn filter hit repeated delays until the idea was abandoned altogether in 2019. It was an object lesson in the weakness of western democracy in the face of new technology.
There’s a weird disconnect between our regulation of television (where, for instance, we enforce restrictions on advertising during children’s programmes) and what happens online. Obviously, there are greater technical difficulties in regulating millions of websites than a handful of broadcast channels, but that’s not the only reason why we’re so soft on the online providers.
We still have a romantic notion of the internet as an abode of freedom. Big Tech has had the thing sewn up for years, but we cling to the notion of a digital frontier where anything goes.
The Chinese Government has no such illusions. Like authoritarian regimes elsewhere, it has long understood the potential of the internet as a means of mass control. The crackdown on online gaming is just part of a wider crackdown in which the country’s tech companies are being brought to heel.
I’m not suggesting that we should go the full Xi Jinping in the West. Far from it. But it’s about time we got real. The internet is not a free-for-all, but a space in which a small number of powerful actors wield extraordinary influence. The only question is who’s doing it to whom and for what purpose.