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James Griffiths offers an alternative view of Chinese internet history in the Great Firewall of China. Photo: Shutterstock

Review | How China built Great Firewall, and how web users can build a transparent, democratic internet – new book

  • James Griffiths has written an even-handed history of the internet in China that is as critical of censors there as it is of the profit-driven US tech industry
  • Author hopes, perhaps optimistically, that a user-controlled internet built around the technology’s promise of freedom and education can develop instead

The Great Firewall of China by James Griffiths, Zed Books

Many potential readers of James Griffiths’ book will have experienced the Great Firewall referenced in the title, but that doesn’t mean they won’t find the book useful. Griffiths stitches events and issues, most of which are reasonably well known, into a coherent narrative, providing a readable and informative history of the internet in China.

The book’s strength is in Griffiths’s measured tone 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 reminds readers 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”.

The cover of The Great Firewall of China by James Griffiths.

For readers interested in the larger issues, The Great Firewall of China’s recapitulation of the history of the internet in China, and discussion of how many of the best-laid plans went awry, is a good jumping-off point. Griffiths’s own framing is contained in his subtitle: “How to Build and Control an Alternative Version of the Internet” – an alternative, that is, to the freewheeling libertarian ethos of internet pioneers, an ideology that, even in the United States, now seems more breached than honoured.

The particular details of the Chinese internet aside, one of the consequences is the potential balkanisation of the global internet into national, government-controlled webs with only restricted and restrictive connections between them. This violates what some might consider the entire point of the internet, but in China and elsewhere, the internet is now primarily a lifestyle service, rather than a vehicle for the exercise of personal liberty. Official 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.

Maoism: A Global History – how China exported revolution around the world

The problems that Griffiths discusses are inherent in the technology. The flip side of ease of communication is that the communications are easier to monitor. The same connectivity that allows us to communicate and share files and information across oceans is what allows transoceanic hacking and the viral distribution of “fake news”.

The mobile-phone towers that allow 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. However, he does 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 moves beyond China, he sometimes claims or implies more than seems totally proven. In the Telegram chapter, “China helps Russia bring Telegram to heel”, he writes: “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.”

Telegram was adopted by Russian activists and dissidents. Photo: Shutterstock

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 it would seem that Russia has more than enough tech expertise to implement such switches on its own.

In the end, it seems Griffiths sees The Great Firewall of China more as a lesson about the internet itself than just a story about China. He disparages both the Western “big tech” and the “hyper-controlled” Chinese models, and pins 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”.

Good luck.