How the "Great Firewall" extends beyond China

CNN International reporter James Griffiths dissects how Chinese internet censorship affects platforms worldwide

By Keith A. Spencer

Senior Editor

Published March 25, 2019 7:00PM (EDT)

"The Great Firewall of China: How to Build and Control an Alternative Version of the Internet" By James Griffiths (Getty/Zed Books)
"The Great Firewall of China: How to Build and Control an Alternative Version of the Internet" By James Griffiths (Getty/Zed Books)

News stories about censorship in China tend to depict that system as confined to one country. Yet James Griffiths, a CNN International reporter based in Hong Kong, explains that it is not that simple.

"The concern that we should all have as ordinary users is that the version of these products that the Chinese market use could become the versions that we end up using," Griffiths told me. China, as the world's most populous country, is a huge market — so it makes sense that it would be more efficient for a popular app to make a one-size-fits-all version of itself that complies with Chinese censorship rules and which can be exported abroad. This isn't merely hypothetical: search engines like Google have been working to get their hands on the Chinese market by creating separate compliant products — in their case, an alternative search engine known as "Dragonfly."

Griffiths, author of "The Great Firewall of China," a new book on internet censorship in China, is an expert in the intricacies of the Chinese internet — particularly, how censorship actually works, and how it compares to other countries. Disturbingly, Griffiths was keen to point out how Chinese internet censorship had some comparisons to the United States' digital infrastructure; indeed, Americans may not see content blocked (as often at least), but we know intuitively we're being watched. "None of these [private] companies have been created by the [Chinese] government for the purpose of surveilling people," Griffiths explained. "They have been co-opted by the government for the purpose of surveilling people." In the United States we suffer a similar situation: companies like Verizon and AT&T, whose partial business model is monetized surveillance, have been compromised by the U.S. government, which has backdoors to monitor anyone they perceive as a threat. 

I spoke with Griffiths via phone about internet censorship in China and around the globe, and what it's like using the internet in Hong Kong versus mainland China. This interview has been edited and condensed for print.

SALON: To start, let’s talk about the title of the book, “The Great Firewall.” How would you explain what that is to a layperson?

James Griffiths: It's a term that was coined by Wired magazine in 1997. It originally referred to one specific aspect of Chinese censorship, which happens at many levels and in many different ways.

Some people push back and say, “Oh, you know, [The Great Firewall] is only part of it”… But I think it's generally accepted now [that] it's just a catch-all term for all censorship in China.

In the book, I define it as two levels of censorship. [At] the international level, [there] is what was traditionally known as the Great Firewall. That's literally the technology which exists at the points where the Chinese internet becomes the global Internet.

Without going into too much detail into the technology of it, there are various points where your national internet connects to the global internet backbone. Where a country’s internet merges with the, sort of, international internet. At that point there is the firewall technology — which can check traffic going across those borders for banned websites. If you try and load Twitter, it can detect that you're trying to load, and it will block it.

[The Great Firewall] can also do what’s called a “deep packet inspection” — which has gotten a lot more sophisticated over the years — and it is designed that it can kind of pre-emptively detect content that previously hasn't been blocked.

So say you have a new website that is about Falun Gong, the banned religious movement, it doesn't matter that the [Chinese government] doesn't know that x URL is related to that group. They should be able to detect, based on the content of that website, that it is not something that should be allowed into the country, then block it.

That's the most obvious part of The Great Firewall —  the easiest part to explain, pehaps ­— but it's also the part that doesn't actually affect people that much, because most people in China are consuming Chinese content within China's borders.

The example I always give is that, if you're in the US, you're reading news about the US. I would expect a vanishingly small number of people are checking Chinese state media to make sure that they aren't reporting something that's been censored by US media. Most people consume media and consume content from within their own country and certainly within their own primary language. The part of The Great Firewall which affects people day-to-day is the more obscure parts, which are within the Chinese internet companies themselves. That's when we get down to the kind of manual censorship which is carried out by legions of human employees within companies like Weibo [a Chinese Twitter equivalent]. These are people whose job is to check content that’s flagged, and this is something that changes over time as with political sensitivities.

The genius of this system is that the censorship is privatized within these companies. There aren't very good guidelines for [what] gets censored, yet the punishments for getting it wrong or very severe — which means that if you're a private company, you err on the side of censorship, because if you censor something you weren't supposed to censor, there's no real repercussions. If you fail to censor something you really should've censored, you get in trouble — and we have lots of reporting on people getting in trouble for not censoring things. Your license can be suspended for certain periods, which has happened in the past. Your entire company can go down. There's a couple of early competitors to Weibo, who essentially died because they were not strict enough when it came to censorship. I guess they lost the confidence of the government and it was decided that they should just be shut down.

Obviously the Great Firewall is not just, like, one algorithm. It's really complex, as you as you said. It has multiple fronts that it operates on, both within private companies and on a government basis. To what extent are the big American tech companies, like Google and Yahoo, complicit in the maintenance and the function of the Great Firewall?

I mean, let's take Google as an example. When Google was in China for the brief period when it ran, it was essentially performing the same functions as the Chinese as a company Baidu, its biggest competitor, and it was performing the same functions, it had a database of content that wasn't allowed on and there were Google employees who were checking whether they were living up to the agreement they made with the Chinese government. To operate in China, you have to be complicit. There is no way to operate a company, a Chinese internet company without agreeing to these restrictions.

LinkedIn is this famous one, that they still operate in China and they are very open about the fact that they censor content. It is essential you make that decision of, do we have no presence at all or do we operate like a Chinese internet company and censor users and censor content? I mean Google is a particular interesting one because of the recent revelations and recent reporting on [Google’s censored version of its search engine] Dragonfly, which is now supposedly been put on hold or killed. One of the really interesting things about Dragonfly [is] that the reporting suggested that it was going beyond the previous compromises, that it was going to be a much more sophisticated kind of censorship that was going on. There was also a lot of concerns about how they’d use the data that was being collected, what data was available. It gets very messy very quickly trying to make these compromises. That's what all of these companies kind of tend to find out when they try and do that.

To expand on that, but I also say is that's one reason I always try and push back. I think people should be very skeptical when they hear reporting of ex-American internet companies going into China. Facebook as we know it is never going to exist in China. Facebook, the company, may — it seems aggressively unlikely that this will even happen. But there've been periods in the past where it looked like Facebook, the company, might operate a product in China, or that Google the company might operate a product in China, and Dragonfly is going be a sample of that. It was not going to be Google search as you and I know it, it was going to be this unique Chinese app designed for the Chinese market.

Similarly, if China ever gets some version of Facebook that's what it will be — it will be a Chinese version of Facebook.

The concern that we should all have as ordinary users is that the version of these products that the Chinese market use could become the versions that we end up using. All these other countries that have restrictions on the internet turn around and say, “Well, Google, you build a special version of your app for China, build one now for Russia, build one now for Uganda.” Even the EU has very different laws — not censorship laws, but it has very different laws about internet. Does the EU say, “you need to build a specific version for us?” People should be very skeptical of reports about any company and kind of go into China, but there also should be a degree of concern about what that will mean for how the company behaves in other markets.

One app that comes to mind is [social media app] TikTok, which started in China I believe. My understanding is that maybe the version of the United States is the same as the one they have in China, or not that different. Is this an example of that phenomenon?

Yeah. I mean, I have to be totally honest. I don't know a super lot about TikTok. I mean, from in a very surface level, you said they seem be pretty similar. I doubt TikTok is investing in… well, the simple answer is I don't know enough to say it to say for sure. A better example I can give is WeChat….which is maybe not as used in the US, but it is widely used in a lot of countries outside of China. We have good solid reporting on censorship of WeChat. Not anywhere near to the degree that happens within China itself, but it does shape how the app functions outside of China.

How is the so-called social credit system connected to the Great Firewall? I know there's a degree of surveillance involved in that system. I'm curious about whether the bureaucracy is connected

The social credit system at the moment is still very theoretical and not implemented in most areas. There are a few tests, a test kind of projects in various parts of China and there's a few tests kind of cases with certain apps and certain things. As it's been proposed and reported, it's easy to see how this potential system would fit in with the Great Firewall — and very concerning as well, because essentially, if the social credit system is thoughtfully realized, I think it would switch the censorship [system] from being mostly top-down to being mostly self-censorship. Obviously there is still a massive degree of self-censorship which occurs in China. But this [social credit system] would make it go down to a much more granular level, because supposedly the social credit system would take into account who you associate with, who you have in your phone contact, who you communicate with on WeChat.

That means that from my own personal perspective, and my colleagues’ perspectives, I wouldn't be surprised if every foreign journalist becomes a person you definitely don't want to have in your phone contacts — because if we can be identified we might be seen as suspicious, and perhaps that’s a drag on your social credit score. We then might see people police their behaviour a lot more and police their associations. I think people would be much kind of more wary about [doing things] that would affect your social credit score. It's easy to see how this would fit in with instant censorship and generally the kind of surveillance which goes into the Great Firewall.

In the US, our internet isn't censored per se, although a lot of US internet users feel like we're always being watched — either by the NSA, or by tech companies like Google and Facebook, that make money off of harvesting and monitoring all our personal data and connections in our searches. Simultaneously, the way we access the internet is mediated by these gatekeeper companies that steer us towards clicking on links that will make them money, controlling what we see to some degree.

I'm curious if you see any similarities in how, say, the US or the rest of the world's internet experience has been distorted by corporations, and how the Chinese Internet experience has been distorted and manipulated by the government. Is there a chilling effect in both? Are there kind of analogies to be made?

I think there are definitely analogies to be made. In China — yes it is a government run system and it's the Chinese legal system, which is causing the censorship. But like I said earlier, it is mostly carried out by these private companies. None of these companies have been created by the government for the purpose of surveilling people. They have been co-opted by the government for the purpose of surveilling people.

You can't really talk to Chinese officials about this. Therefore, I think people shouldn't be too complacent about the vast power that the Chinese — sorry, the vast power that all internet firms have over users by in terms of surveillance of us. Just in terms of how much we live our lives on these platforms… I always push back when people kind of talk about boycotting — what's the phrase — “voting with your wallet” when it comes to protesting against things like Facebook and Google. There was a great piece, a series in Gizmodo about trying to avoid these services. The simple answer for most people is you can't. You can’t live a normal life without kind of participating in the surveillance capitalism economy.

People shouldn't be complacent about what that means if you become someone whose views are undesirable. What is censored in China is “against the law,” so these people are technically breaking the law, but what is against the law today in our kind of enlightened democracies might be very different tomorrow. It may come back to haunt us, the degree to which these companies have power over our lives and the degree to which they have insight into our lives. I think it's concerning how little the Snowden revelations are talked about nowadays.

A lot of big tech companies and the telecom companies were cooperating with the government when it comes to surveillance. I don't think necessarily we should be complacent about whether that's changed now. We don't know and we can't say for sure but we should treat it with suspicion.

A big kind of through-line of the book, I think, is the attempt to fight Internet censorship and promote internet freedom are largely ineffective when they don't coincide with attempts to build a better internet —more free, more transparent and an internet designed for users back home. The best way to promote a free and open internet is to build one in your own backyard, and then hope that it spreads elsewhere rather than to kind of just go after the worst examples of the Internet and ignore the very real problems that we deal with in our own experiences.

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James Griffiths’ new book, “The Great Firewall of China: How to Build and Control an Alternative Version of the Internet”,  is out now from Zed Books.


By Keith A. Spencer

Keith A. Spencer is a social critic and author. Previously a senior editor at Salon, he writes about capitalism, science, labor and culture, and published a book on how Silicon Valley is destroying the world. Keep up with his writing on TwitterFacebook, or Substack.

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