Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Beijing ‘pushing ahead with Internet sovereignty’

The worst for personal assistant Gao Xiangyu, 27, was when she could not access Google Calendar, which she relied on to manage her boss' schedule.

The Inner Mongolia native now has to personally remind her boss, the dean of a Shenzhen graduate school, of each and every one of his daily appointments.

But because her school needs to maintain e-mail contact with many American and European visiting professors, all of whom use Google Mail and Google Talk, she and her colleagues are in a bind.

"It's frustrating, but we are not sure what to do. Now, we are just waiting to see if this is permanent. If so, we will have to change our whole system," she said.

Ms Gao, like millions of other Chinese, has lost access to Google and all its Internet services and products since May 31 in what has been China's widest and longest crackdown on the American Internet giant ever.

While the Great Chinese Firewall has long kept American sites like Facebook and YouTube out of China, this latest block on Google - which observers suspect to be permanent - looks to be China's biggest push yet for a concept it calls "Internet sovereignty".

This is the idea that, like land and sea borders, the boundaries of Chinese cyberspace are the government's right to police and defend.

The Internet here is under the Chinese government's jurisdiction, this argument goes, and all who enter must abide by its rules.

Google has not had a mainland Chinese website since 2010 because it refused to give in to China's directives to filter its search results, and directed users to its Hong Kong site.

Google Mail was still mostly accessible, despite periodic blockages, and other products like Google Analytics and Adsense, widely used by Chinese e-commerce websites, were freely available - until now.

The Chinese government first issued a manifesto on "Internet sovereignty" in the form of a White Paper in 2010. But the idea - seen as propaganda for the Chinese government's desire to censor information from its citizens - gained little traction both internationally and among Chinese society, noted experts.

But in the past year, a series of events have fuelled international concern over US dominance of the Internet and bolstered China's resentment of its own reliance on American technology, and a determination to overcome this.

The chief factor, said observers, was the revelations last year by former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden that Washington conducts blanket cyber surveillance both domestically and internationally.

"The capabilities of the US in collecting information have been astounding to the Internet community and definitely shocking to governments such as China's, which do not have the same level of capability," noted Dr Ang Peng Hwa, director of the Singapore Internet Research Centre at Nanyang Technological University.

Within China, the revelations have been taken as proof that the US considers cyberspace "as one sphere of national security just like land, sea, air and space".

This was the way Mr Fang Binxing, known as the father of China's Great Firewall, put it in a recent editorial for party mouthpiece People's Daily: "In today's situation, a country's sovereignty is more and more embedded in its control of the Internet."

Two other recent incidents have added kindling to the fire. In April, Microsoft ceased delivering updates to its Windows XP operating system, which upset mainland users.

The second, last month, was the US government's indictment of five personnel from the People's Liberation Army for economic espionage, a move that infuriated China, which said it was hypocritical.

But the road to Internet sovereignty in China will be a costly one, not just for average consumers but also the entire Chinese high-tech sector, said Shanghai Jiao Tong University's new media expert Wei Wuhui.

"China's Internet giants like (search engine) Baidu and (micro-blogging platform) Weibo developed and expanded because Chinese users were not allowed to use the Western originals," he said. "As long as the Internet here is protected in this way, the Chinese Internet sector will always be good at copying - not innovating."

Still, observers believe that the Chinese government is likely to push ahead for "Internet sovereignty".

"It would appear that, overall, the Chinese are prepared to pay the price," said NTU's Dr Ang. "The 'strategy' has worked. There is a Chinese Internet economy such that if it is cut off, it is viable.

Whatever exists in the West, there is a Chinese equivalent."

There are those who are not giving up hope.

GreatFire.org is devoted to tracking China's censorship of the Internet because "we believe Chinese should have free access to information. They shouldn't be treated as second-class citizens", said the founders, who declined to be named for personal security reasons.

After the latest block on Google began, GreatFire.org launched a service that allowed Chinese users to freely access a mirror Google Search website. GreatFire.org told The Straits Times that the site, at sinaapp.co, is now getting upwards of 100,000 hits a day.

Baidu, China's reigning search engine, which censors its results according to the Chinese government's directives, has 531 million users a day.

But still, most globalised young Chinese who are clued in to how to get around the Great Firewall are feeling despondent.

App engineer Wang Yichao, 24, believes that China's creative industries will never achieve a "cutting edge" as long as they are blocked from the nexus of international trends, as glimpsed through portals like YouTube and Google.

"I understand why we need to protect against US spying. But this is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater," the Beijinger, who graduated from an American University, lamented.

He has been relying on Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), services that re-route one's Internet traffic so it seems like the user is outside of China. But the Chinese government's army of Internet censors also blocks or chokes these.

"I am switching from VPN to VPN. When one starts getting popular, they come after it and you can't use it anymore. It's like a race that we cannot win."


This article was first published on June 30, 2014.

No comments:

Post a Comment