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.