Almost two decades ago, President Bill Clinton gave a speech in Washington predicting that in future “liberty will be spread by cell phone and cable modem.” He was also skeptical of China’s attempts to censor the Internet, claiming that ultimately, that effort will be fruitless.
“Now there’s no question China has been trying to crack down on the internet,” President Clinton said. “Good luck! That’s sort of like trying to nail jello to the wall.”
Since then, his metaphor has become a running joke among the Internet freedom activists around the globe, since, apparently, China not only nailed the jello but managed to keep it on the wall.
The new report, published recently by the Freedom House on Internet freedom, proves beyond any doubt that China’s jello is sticking. Not only that, but more and more countries have decided to follow China’s example, as Internet freedoms decline for the eight years in a row.
People who know more about the Internet and information technologies than President Clinton ever will have made the same prediction, and were equally proven wrong by China. Beijing has managed what was thought impossible, to create an effective firewall, shielding the country from the majority of news sources in the outside world and limiting their citizens to news approved by the Communist Party only. The Great Firewall, named so as a joke, has become a reality.
Not only did Chinese censors managed to prevent the influx of any news they deemed harmful to the country, but they are also succeeding in cutting off all of the traditional channels Chinese citizens have been using to access the outside world, like VPNs and dark web.
Sunday Yokubaitis, CEO of VPN company Golden Frog, has recently said in an interview for the CNN that their service “witnessed a massive increase” in an effort to shut them down.
“We used to see blocks roughly once every six weeks; they now try to block our service multiple times every day,” he said.
The Chinese Great Firewall has become so effective that other countries are asking for their help. Chinese Internet censorship experts are currently employed by Russia, Uganda, and many other countries, looking to achieve similar results.
Freedom House report confirms this. “A cohort of countries is moving toward digital authoritarianism by embracing the Chinese model of extensive censorship and automated surveillance systems,” Freedom House report states.
Lu Kang, the spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, vehemently denied the report’s findings, claiming they “are sheer fabrications.”
“They are unprofessional, irresponsible and made with ulterior motives,” Lu said.
It would seem that optimistic predictions from the early 2000s, claiming that the spread of the Internet will help increase global freedom and democracy, were wrong. These predictions were based on the Cold War when Radio Free Europe broadcasts were able to penetrate the Iron Curtain and bring news to Soviet citizens. The predictions were best explained by Evgeny Morovoz: “Viewing it through the prism of the Cold War, they endow the internet with nearly magical qualities; for them, it’s the ultimate cheat sheet that could help the West finally defeat its authoritarian adversaries.” Morozov continues: “In other words, let them tweet, and they will tweet their way to freedom. By this logic, authoritarianism becomes unsustainable once the barriers to the free flow of information are removed. If the Soviet Union couldn’t surprise a platoon of pamphleteers, how can China survive an army of bloggers?”
As it turns out, the Internet is a double-edged sword. While it may be used to spread information, it is also an excellent tool for mass surveillance and imposing the government’s opinion on the public.
The recent happening surrounding the United States 2016 elections and the ensuing panic over the fake news and election interference only added fuel to the fire.
“Throughout (2018), authoritarians used claims of ‘fake news’ and data scandals as a pretext to move closer to China,” the Freedom House report said. “Governments in countries such as Egypt and Iran rewrote restrictive media laws to apply to social media users, jailed critics under measures designed to curb false news, and blocked foreign social media and communication services.”
Internationally, China has been exerting its influence through the UN’s International Telecommunication Union, managing to create significant changes in its charter, allowing greater powers to the national governments. Beijing has a full support from Russia and other countries, keened on limiting the Internet freedoms for their citizens.
Chinese president Xi Jinping has formulated the doctrine of cyber sovereignty, claiming that national states have full sovereignty over the Internet within their borders, foreign companies included. He will present the doctrine next month at China’s own World Internet Conference.
China has been working closely with other countries that are interested in achieving similar results. Golden Frog’s CEO Yokubaitis says that its company has encountered similar tactics in various other parts of the world, like Russia and the Middle East, claiming that Beijing “exporting blocking technologies to countries with repressive regimes.”
This is confirmed by the Freedom House report, claiming that China is taking active steps to spread its system abroad by providing both the technology and experts to implement it to the interested countries.
“These trends present an existential threat to the future of the open internet and prospects for greater democracy around the globe,” the report said.
The report lists 57 countries that are purchasing tools and attending training hosted by Chinese experts, enabling them to effectively limit the Internet freedoms within their borders. Some of these countries are dictatorships from Central Asia, but there are a few European democracies on the list as well.
“Democratic governments will have to devote much greater diplomatic and other resources to countering China’s charm offensive on the international stage,” Freedom House added. “More governments are turning to China for guidance and support at a time when the United States’ global leadership is on the decline, and the acquiescence of foreign companies to Beijing’s demands only emboldens the regime in its effort to rewrite international rules in its favor.”