This is an exciting and sobering account of how freedom, which was never in the internet code in the first place, can be effectively curtailed with the tools that were supposed to liberate us. Towards the end of the book, Griffiths shows how China has in turn helped Russia with its own efforts at internet censorship, and is now exporting the same technologies to Africa. These are alarming developments, to be sure; yet at the same time western liberals increasingly demand that Twitter, Facebook, YouTube et al become censors themselves, removing certain kinds of content, and deleting the accounts of users. Griffiths quotes Xi Jinping as saying: “Cyberspace is not a domain beyond the rule of law. Greater effort should be made to strengthen ethical standards and promote civilised behaviour.” Well, it should, shouldn’t it?
For all the complaints we have about the tech giants, The Great Firewall of China reminds us that no one is as effective a censor and snooper as a determined government. And the Chinese model is starting to spread. ‘The key danger of the Great Firewall,’ writes Griffiths, is that ‘it acts as a daily proof of concept for authoritarians and dictators the world over’.
Griffiths’s strengths are as a reporter: he has an eye for character and writes with impartial rigour. But although he effectively details how China built its alternative internet, he fails to address some of the deeper questions its panopticon poses. The meaning of privacy and freedom – for Chinese citizens living with an authoritarian internet regime, or for citizens elsewhere under surveillance capitalism – is left unexplored... In a cursory epilogue, Griffiths writes that the path beyond Silicon Valley’s hollow libertarianism or China’s state censorship is a publicly owned internet freed from “the pursuit of profit or top-down control”. In an age where life is increasingly conducted online, his conclusion feels more urgent than ever.
This book comes at a time when governments around the world are worrying over China’s expanding technological capabilities and its ability to conduct cyber espionage. Griffiths explains a technical subject — Beijing’s internet controls — through the lens of Chinese politics and the logic of social movements. Chapters on tech companies and regulation are interleaved with deeply moving stories of the accidental activists who became the victims of China’s censors: Falun Gong mystics, satirical cartoonists and Uighur Muslims, among many.
As he delivers an expansive history of the Chinese internet, Griffiths bundles various theses, the first of which is that the internet threatens China’s rulers not because “it risked undermining their control over information, but because it threatened to create a platform for organising against them”. Using this framing, one can much better understand the decisions of Beijing’s censors.