The Filtered Future
China's bid to divide the Internet.
The end of June marked the deadline for independent Chinese bloggers to register with the government. That requirement is another sign, along with Microsoft's recent admission that its Chinese blog site would block titles like "freedom" and "democracy," of the country's efforts to control the Internet. In the United States, the mainstream assumption is that such controls are easily evaded and will do little to slow China's inexorable march to democracy. The country's leaders are "digging the Communist Party's grave, by giving the Chinese people broadband," writes New York Times columnist Nicolas Kristof. "There just aren't enough police to control the Internet."
Kristof is right that China's blogging rules can be sidestepped by experts. But what he and others overlook is a larger assault on the identity of the Internet itself. The Web was conceived as one global medium, by its nature open and free. But countries like China are pushing hard to divide that global network into a system of Balkanized national networks. Censorship of the sort Microsoft acceded to is grabbing headlines, but the more important restrictive measures are taking place quietly—and quietly succeeding.
Consider filtering. Blocking the Democracy Times at the Chinese border is kid stuff. The Chinese state accomplishes much more by filtering not just Web content, but the tools that allow the Internet to function: search engines, chat rooms, blogs, and even e-mail. The idea is to make filtering a basic fact of the Web. And filtering a tool like a search engine has the benefit of subtlety, because to most people searches will feel free even when they're not. How many of us can tell when something goes missing in a Google result?
The Communist Party's management of chat rooms works similarly. A post like "Let's hold multiparty elections" is deleted before posting or soon after. But more crucial is the party's channeling of chat-room discussions to serve its own interests. The pattern began in 1999, when an American B-2 bomber dropped five 2,000-pound bombs on the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. State-run media immediately used the Internet to suggest that the bombing was no mistake. As anti-American riots erupted, the People's Daily, China's largest Communist Party-owned newspaper, created a Web chat forum to denounce the bombing. Thanks to these efforts, today an astonishing number of Chinese still believe that the bombing was a deliberate attack, and chat-room-fired protests against the United States or Japan are a regular fixture. When China captured a U.S. spy plane in 2001, the government encouraged posts like, "If little Bush goes on squawking, we should rope together his 24 white pigs and parade them through the streets."
Another Chinese attempt at control involves the Internet's physical infrastructure. Within China, the Web looks more and more like a giant office network every day, centralized by design. Last month, China announced its latest build-out—the "Next Carrying Network," or CN2. This massive internal network will be fast, but it will also be built by a single, state-owned company and easy to filter at every step. Its addressing system (known as IPv6) is scarcely used in the United States and may make parts of the Chinese Internet and the rest of the world mutually unreachable. While such things are hard to measure, Internet maps suggest that, powered by projects like CN2, growth in China's domestic bandwidth is rapidly outpacing the speed of its international connections. Networkwise, China will soon be like a country with a great internal transport system but few roads leading in or out. The goal is an inward-looking network that is physically disconnected from the rest of the world.
China is also trying to influence Internet protocols. As anyone knows who has anonymously logged in to his or her neighbor's network, the American Wi-Fi standard creates access anarchy. Last year, citing national security concerns, China ordered all domestic and foreign electronics manufacturers to bundle Wi-Fi with a Chinese encryption standard called WAPI (the acronym stands for "Wireless Local Area Network Authentication and Privacy Infrastructure"). WAPI makes a wireless network closed rather than open by forcing every user of the network to register with a centralized authentication authority. Because it's under heavy pressure from the United States to lift trade restrictions, China has for the moment retreated from requiring all Wi-Fi units to be sold with WAPI. But the country is still pushing its own companies to use the standard and trying to get it adopted globally. What the WAPI campaign foretells are future battles between open American standards and closed Chinese versions.
Techno-optimists like Kristof nonetheless take it as an article of faith that all of China's controls are destined to fail. They echo the hacker's creed—if a system can be beaten it will, so control of information is impossible. They point out that when chat rooms are closely monitored, people start talking about "cabbages" when they mean "democracy." As one blogger wrote recently, "No democratic movement in the history of mankind has ever stalled just because the word 'democracy' could not be uttered." But these arguments ignore a fundamental principle in legal theory: A law does not need to be perfect to be effective. If you're talking about carrots and cabbages instead of multiparty elections, the Communist Party has already won. Ordinary Chinese won't have any idea of what you're talking about. Competing discussion threads that rant against the Japanese, on the other hand, will continue to enjoy mass appeal.
China's long-term vision is clear: an Internet that feels free and acts as an engine of economic progress yet in no way threatens the Communist Party's monopoly on power. With every passing day the Chinese Internet reflects that vision more closely. It portends a future for the Web that we're only beginning to understand—one in which powerful countries refashion the global network to suit themselves.
Photograph of Chinese flag on Slate's home page by Peter Parks/Agence France Presse.