The ongoing trade spat between China and the United States seems to have captured the attention of media pundits across the globe. However, there is also a slow burning fuse of discontent by Chinese authorities regarding unfettered access by citizens to information available on the Internet, as well as the activities of search engine, app providers and social media companies. The result is increased Internet surveillance.
The media have touched on the unprecedented levels of Chinese mass surveillance – it’s accepted as part of the cost of doing business in China. However, it’s easy for concerns regarding data security and privacy to fade into the background when profit is then driver of success. That is until the impact becomes so severe that the immediate inclination is to run for the safety of the regulatory authorities.
The problem is who do you run to when president Xi Jinping and the Communist Party in China decide on the rules that will allow them to police the use of apps and access to information by their citizens, as well as the operations of the Internet service providers that do business in their country?
Increasing surveillance becomes the norm
On 30 November a new set of rules saw Internet authorities in China clenching an iron fist when it came to some of the country’s largest app providers like Alibaba, Baidu, ByteDance and Tencent (it was not immediately clear if the ruling would apply to international companies). These companies will be required to keep a log with information such as activities of users posting in blogs, microblogs, chat rooms, short video platforms and webcasts. The companies will also be obliged to identify the real registered name of users, as well as well as stand ready to supply a 60-day recorded activity log to authorities should they demand it.
The ruling, according to the Chinese government is aimed at preventing online retailers and other e-commerce companies from engaging in activities that would potentially influence public opinion or “mobilize the public to engage in specific activities.”
The nature of the meddling by Chinese authorities becomes even more worrying when one considers that it not clear under what circumstances the companies might be required to hand over logs to authorities.
The vague nature of the sanction, which was posted on the Cyber Administration of China’s website earlier in November is exactly what it sounds like – Draconian in the extreme. The leeway it gives to Chinese authorities to take either legal action or extra judicial action is breath taking – and more than a little terrifying.
What does it mean?
The implications are frightening. The log that the authorities demand will contain information on the activities of users posting blogs, making their thoughts known in chatrooms, posting video content and webcasting. In short – if you are online the Chinese government wants to know about it – and about you. Privacy and the right to free speech online – always under threat in China has now been effectively made punishable offenses – and companies like Alibaba and TenCent have now, without their consent, become the bully boys of Chinese censorship.
The Chinese authorities have cited the need to safeguard national security and protect civil order as the reasons behind this latest edict.
Chinese officials will be carrying out onsite visits to ensure compliance. Just what they will be ‘inspecting’ is unclear. However, if they are to ‘inspect’ one assumes that will involve a close examination of the data that those companies are holding and logs of their interaction with customers and other parties. In essence this means that data privacy is to all intents and purposes dead in China. These inspections also carry the very real risk of allowing Chinese authorities a transparent backdoor into other databases where information is stored across the globe.
The silver lining
It must be said that the Chinese government does have a semi valid argument in certain respects. The Cyber Administration sought to temper its actions by saying that it was in the public good in order to rein in excessive access of users’ personal data by app providers. Given the consumer experience in the west – that may not be a bad thing – but the downside is massive.
On 8 December Reuters reported that China had closed 1,100 social media accounts, along with 31 websites that it accused of ‘unlawful activities’ such as trolling or blackmail. It also announced that it would be paying even more attention to Weibo and TenCent’s ‘WeChat’. This is not a government that displays subtlety or a sense of proportion when it comes to Internet activity.
In April, Chinese authorities ordered ByteDance to shut down a popular social media platform on which users often shared jokes, videos and GIFs, saying many of the posts were vulgar and displayed “improper public opinion.”
China uses an iron fist in a very thin velvet glove when it comes to the domestic Internet. There is a censorship system that reaches into all aspects of online use and service provision. The government summarily deletes any mention of topics that Beijing deems sensitive, including criticism of President Xi Jinping, the Tiananmen Square massacre, or any news that could spark mass protests.
As most of us merrily go about using the social media to share opinion or have spirited arguments (no matter how wrongheaded they may be at times) it should come as a sobering thought that popular social media and search engines — including companies from the United States such as Facebook, Google and Twitter— are banned in China.
People who use the Internet in western countries should take a moment to think about the statement that the Chinese authorities will drop the hammer on both companies and individuals who are guilty of expressing or allowing the expression of ‘improper public opinion’.
A moments reflection on this phrase and just how much power it provides the Chinese government should send shivers down the spines of free speech proponents. Companies in very recent times have been shut down because users displayed that aforementioned “improper public opinion.” The Chinese authorities have not changed their Maoist tune in any way, shape or form when it comes to controlling public debate or their heavy-handed approach to the policing of information.
Any talk in western liberal media or online about the ‘reformation’ of the Chinese government’s approach to information control seems to only scratch the surface without paying closer attention to a deeply ingrained policy towards controlling how their citizens access and use information.
The market remains attractive
The Chinese market for providers of Internet services (and apps) is simply too attractive for them to stand by their principles when it comes to the protection of data and for security issues to be of overriding concern. To say the market holds great promise is to understate the obvious to a laughable extent. Some statistics might be in order to understand just how lucrative this market can be. China currently has a population of around 1.4 billion people. The response of many people will be that the numbers make no difference – most of that population is rural and has no access to basic services – let alone the Internet. These people will have ignored another very interesting statistic.
As far back as 2012 well over 50% of China’s population lived in urban areas – and that year saw the first time that the urban population exceed the rural population. And those people in those urban areas are using apps and accessing the Internet. It’s not just urbanization that is driving Internet use in fact according to a Pew Research Centre study conducted in 2016 71% of Chinese people are using smart devices.
The Chinese authorities know full well that if those users mobilize against unpopular central government edicts it has the possibility to ignite a conflagration that could well make the events of 1989 on Tiananmen Square where 1,022 people died at the hands of the police and military look like a toddler’s picnic in the park.
So, the Chinese authorities keep a very close watch on the ability of consumers to have unfettered access to communication tools using the Internet – as the latest ruling has shown. Internet surveillance is not becoming ubiquitous.
But that has not stopped companies from coveting a slice of that huge user base. Google for instance was prepared to bend over backwards to come to some sort of accommodation with the Chinese government in order to access Chinese Internet users.
Project Dragonfly was an initiative by Internet giants like Google to rebuild its presence in China by launching a version of its search engine that would conform to the governments demand s that aspects of the search capability be subject to censorship and ignore its supposed commitment to free expression and to a large extent ignore privacy concerns. Faced with a looming strike by some of its most senior personnel Google quickly backed away from the plan and explained that the project strategy and planning were merely ‘exploratory’ in nature.
But even this ‘exploratory’ planning shows just how much Internet service providers want in on the Chinese consumer market – and are prepared to make any accommodations required.
All-encompassing Internet surveillance
The strongarm tactics of the Chinese government when it comes to forcing companies to reveal details of their clientele may be a nightmare vision of a dystopian society. However, the news that the Chinese authorities see this as a simple first step towards an all-encompassing Internet surveillance compliant society should be enough to make libertarians pull the blankets over their heads and start George Orwell spinning in his grave.
Yet – the Chinese government is aggressively moving in this direction.
China has launched advanced surveillance algorithms and artificial intelligence systems that will allow the authorities to gather, filter and analyze vast amounts of information. The project known by the name ‘Golden Shield’ is still in its infancy – the first element, the rollout of what has become known as the ‘Great Firewall’ prevents Chinese citizens from accessing foreign Internet sites including Google, Facebook, and The New York Times.
When ‘Golden Shield’ becomes reality it will allow the government to analyze online activities to gauge political affiliations, police comments, chat functions and track consumer habits. This initiative dovetails with the Chinese government’s ongoing efforts to use advanced technology such as facial recognition systems, surveillance cameras in public spaces such as train stations to ensure that their control over citizens fits in with their model of an advanced surveillance state.
Given the Chinese focus on controlling both domestic and international Internet service providers and other companies who are custodians of data, as well as private citizens, the future of Internet access and privacy has never been more threatened. The authorities are determined to crack down on dissenting opinion – censorship and surveillance has become the new norm in China.
Combine this state of affairs with the increasing hunger of international companies for access to the data and business of 1.4 billion Chinese consumers and their willingness to come to an accommodation with Chinese authorities, irrespective of the erosion of privacy rights and the future for the Chinese consumer (and organizations that do business in the country) would seem to be one that will be characterized by ever increasing levels of Internet surveillance.