The Great Firewall of China by James Griffiths review – how to control the internet
An eye-opening historical picture shows how China’s online strategy takes aim at the solidarity of its citizens – aided by US tech companies
A few years ago, Facebook started encouraging users to give it their phone numbers. This, it said, was only for security purposes: a way to confirm one’s login credentials. Now, as a result, anyone can look up a user’s profile via their phone number, Facebook “shares” phone numbers with its other apps (such as Instagram), and advertisers can target those numbers too. Recently, Mark Zuckerberg announced that he had developed a new “vision” for social networking that would be “privacy-focused”, and if you believe that then I have a forecast on the economic benefits of Brexit to sell you. And yet, in certain quarters of tech-savvy international relations , it’s always China that is blamed for betraying the promise of a free and open internet.
As James Griffiths’s excellent book on China’s online strategy acknowledges, that promise – the 1990s cyber-utopian vision of an anarchist, autonomous electronic frontier without borders – hardly needed an authoritarian quasi-communist state to betray it. Western corporations did perfectly well on their own. But Griffiths perhaps gives too much credence to that idealistic picture in the first place: the internet was, after all, born from military technology in the first place – the Arpanet, funded by the US Defense Department – and it’s not quite accurate to say, as he does, that it was designed without reference to geography. (The decentralised nature of the military network was precisely a geographical strategy to prevent an enemy from taking it down by destroying any particular node.)