Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Does China's Latest Blocking of VPNs Spell Another Defeat for Internet Freedom?

For anyone who spends significant time in China, getting a working VPN is almost part of the common routine.  With the authorities blocking many foreign websites that foreigners love and have came to rely on, VPN is a necessity for many to go about their daily business on the Chinese Internet.  For these people, the recent news that Apple China has decided to pull all VPNs from its China App Store, no doubt due to government pressures, should be a sign of worry.  Making VPNs less accessible to the general public should foretell a further tightening of Internet censorship in a country that is already known for it.

It is difficult to say why now is perceived as a "good" timing for such a publicized move by the CCP to crack down on tightening Internet access.  What is known, however, is that the authorities are taking concrete measures to institutionalize controlled access to the Internet as part of the common people's daily lives.  The news of China App Store's removal of VPNs are accompanied by that of potential punishment of CCP members for accessing "illegal" websites, as well as continued development of what is called "social credit score" of individuals based on a person's online behavior (one of which is what websites are accessed).

What is most frightening about the direction China is moving towards is that whatever it ends up doing in terms of Internet censorship has certain global implications.  The technologies developed in the process of flexibly seeking out and censoring whole websites as well as keywords within permitted websites can be commercialized and exported to other countries with similar intent but no available technical skills.  The complementing administrative and political institutions to manage and justify Internet censorship can similar be imitated by foreign entities.

While no country today censors the Internet as much as China does, the desire to censor and to be able to censor is much more widespread than what many people tend to assume.  Some of the censorship could be considered legitimate (such as blocking of websites related to child porn, political extremism, and selling of drugs), but there are also plenty of states that, like China, would like to more effectively shape how their citizens think but restricting access to sites that advocate views inconsistent with that of the state.  Russia's recent decision to also block certain VPNs illustrate that restrictive tendency is not unique to China.

Even among Western nations that supposedly uphold freedoms of speech, political needs mean that some sources of information would be considered undesirable.  Donald Trump's obsession with "alternative facts" show that restricting access to some political views serve electoral purposes even in "free" nations.  And of course, in times of war when deceptive opinions could be used to reduce public morale and support for war, censoring some websites may not only be desire but completely necessary to ensure that internal divisions within the country does not affect effectiveness of the national war machine.

Hence, whatever censorship that China undertakes today is not a matter that is only relevant to China.  The technologies and techniques that China develops, along with the experiences and results China obtains from censorship activities, will serve as real references for other countries as they weigh the benefits and costs of censor their own respective Internets.  Should the Chinese example and methods in Internet censorship prove to be not so costly (in terms of financial costs and negative public opinions) while proving to be highly effectively shaping public opinions for smooth statecraft, there is little reason other countries will not follow suit.

Such realist analyses of costs and benefits are going to be highly disheartening.  For those who support net neutrality, the Internet is supposed to be a place of open information exchange, a place where a person can equally access opinions and facts of every kind from everywhere.  Any kind of censorship is going against this ideal of the completely open Internet.  And there is no doubt that the latest move by the Chinese government to block all VPNs while tightening censorship on what sites are accessible and what are not goes directly against the ideals of the open Internet.

Yet, at the same time, net neutrality advocates should not have illusion that an Internet that exists without censorship is one that is completely open and equal.  The open Internet is still increasingly dominated by certain major companies and countries.  Small countries and individuals are unlikely to get their views noticed on the cyberspace even if individual Internet user has the ability to access their websites as equally as those of major players.  In essence, even without Internet censorship, the idea that the Internet is a platform for equal exchange is nothing but an illusion. 

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