Many potential readers of James Griffiths’s new book well have had direct experience of the “Great Firewall of China” of the title. But that doesn’t mean they won’t find the book useful. Griffiths stitches events and issues, most of which are—individually—reasonably well-known, into a coherent narrative. The result is a readable, well-documented history of the internet in China.
The book’s strength is in Griffiths’s measured tone—this is no polemic—and general even-handedness. He is as critical—more despairing than scathing—of the American tech industry as he is of Chinese government policy and notes that much of the technical apparatus used to enforce China’s restrictive version of the Internet was supplied, at least initially, by American firms. When he quotes Chinese leaders and commentators on the need to control the Internet, he places them in the context of a reminder that
successive US presidents, from Clinton to Bush to Obama, hailed the internet as a tool for spreading economic and political liberalisation around the world.
Griffiths writes in a fluent, storytelling style, making use of the journalistic-style vignettes (eg “In the summer of 1988, Dan Haig was feeling directionless”) that now seem de rigueur in books that might otherwise purport to be analytical. These add color if not necessarily evidence; at least Griffiths does it well. The technical passages on, for example, the various international organizations that struggle for international control over the internet or how domain name routing works, are clear and to the point. The book is however perhaps longer than it need be. There are some sections that seem tangential to the line of argument, such as the first-person description of Hong Kong’s 2014 “umbrella revolution”: Griffiths seems intent that the reader know he was there.
But stylistic pros and cons aside, The Great Firewall of China’s recapitulation of the history, and discussion of how many of the best-laid plans went awry, is a good jumping-off place for, if one likes, discussion of the “larger issues”. Griffiths’s own framing is contained in his subtitle: “How to Build and Control an Alternative Version of the Internet”, alternate, that is, to the free-wheeling libertarian ethos of internet pioneers, an ideology than even in the US now seems more breached than honored.
The particular details of the Chinese internet aside, one of the consequences is the potential balkanization of the global internet into national, government-controlled webs with only restricted and restrictive connections between them. This violates what some some might consider the entire point of the internet, but in China as (one dares say) elsewhere, the internet is now primarily a lifestyle service, rather than a vehicle for the exercise of personal liberty. Chinese content probably suffices for almost everyone. The political and social curbs placed on foreign internet services have also delivered protectionist competitive advantages to Chinese tech firms.
But the problems that Griffiths enumerates, and even more than he does not, are inherent in the technology. The flipside of ease of communication is that the communications are easier to monitor. The same connectivity that allow us to communicate and share files and information across oceans is what allows trans-oceanic hacking and the viral distribution of “fake news”. The cell-phone towers that allow cellular internet access all the time and everywhere also capture data about the receiver’s movements. This conundrum extends beyond the internet: the facial recognition technology that is a security feature on some new phones also allows governments to pick faces out of CCTV images.
Griffiths seems more interested in how these contradictions manifest themselves in the “alternate version” of the internet than in their nature. He does however discuss one in particular: encryption. Telegram, a Russia-developed encrypted messaging platform, was quickly adopted by activists, dissidents and others who wished to keep their communications secret. Unfortunately, the evidence is that it was also adopted by terrorists.
Once Griffiths leaves China, he sometimes claims—or perhaps implies—more than that seems entirely proven. In the Telegram chapter, subtitled “China helps Russia bring Telegram to heel”, he writes that
thanks to the expertise of Chinese censors and Chinese equipment guarding the borders to Russia’s internet, such a block was as simple as pressing a button.
In a book filled with footnotes, this statement, and others regarding Chinese “exports”, are unsourced. Perhaps it’s true that China was directly involved, but Russia has, one would have thought, more than enough tech expertise to implement such switches on their own.
In the end, it seems Griffiths sees the “Great Firewall of China” more as a lesson about the internet itself than a story about China per se. He disparages both the western “big tech” and the “hyper-controlled” Chinese models, pinning his hopes on
an alternative vision, one of a user-controlled, transparent and democratic internet built around the technology’s original promises – of freedom, education and international solidarity – not the pursuit of profit or top-down control.