Everyone knows that China’s internet is censored. There’s the government-run firewall that blocks and interferes with unwanted sites, and then there’s the extensive network of self-censors at all of China’s internet companies who delete content they fear might incur the wrath of the regime.
But what if that wasn’t true? What would happen if tomorrow, the “Great Firewall” was torn down and Chinese internet companies were told they no longer needed to censor their content?
It’s a fascinating question, and quite an important one. In a recent speech, Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei said that China must open up or die, especially when it comes to technology:
Why must we be xenophobic? Do we Chinese do everything better than foreigners? Why must there be total independence; independence just means closing the country off from foreign things like in feudal times, and we [Huawei] oppose this [...] we must avoid establishing closed systems. We must create open systems, especially when it comes to hardware. If we don’t open up, we will die off. If we don’t learn from [the openness] of the Americans, we will never be able to beat them.
But what would an open internet look like? And what would have to change to make China’s internet open? I put the question to a number of experts — people who have been watching China’s internet and technology spheres for years — to see what they think might happen.
Where we are now
What, exactly, would it mean for the internet to be uncensored? The first step would be the dismantling of the Great Firewall, the software that blocks the IP addresses of “sensitive” sites like Facebook and Twitter. I spoke to the folks behind Greatfire.org, an organization that collects data about the Great Firewall (often abbreviated as GFW), about what the system does and what would be changing if it were to be dismantled. The representative that I spoke with asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals from the Chinese government.
He told me there is no way of fully knowing how many websites the Great Firewall blocks. GreatFire has tracked more than 8,000 blocked URLs, but that number cannot be interpreted as a fair representation of the total number of sites blocked. In fact, it sounds like literally no one knows how many sites are blocked:
Not even the authorities responsible for the blocking can know. This is because what they block technically isn’t one specific website, but an IP address, a keyword or a domain name. One single IP address used for shared hosting can block access to thousands of websites.
But the Great Firewall doesn’t just block sites, it also sometimes throttles them. The GreatFire representative told me:
The GFW definitely affects the speed of foreign websites. We measure download speed of foreign websites from China and publish the data frequently (here’s an example). The average download speed of top 500 foreign websites, though it’s slowly getting faster, is less than 20 kilobytes per second. This can be compared to what you got on a 90′s-style dialup modem (~8 kilobytes per second) and our own data for the average download speed of domestic websites (~110 kilobytes per second).
Of course, the GFW isn’t the only reason foreign sites load slowly; actual distance plays a large role, too. But GreatFire told me that the GFW “scans all HTTP requests for certain keywords and that [scan] will inevitably cause an additional delay.” So if the Great Firewall were to come down, many foreign websites would come unblocked, but many more foreign sites would also presumably speed up.
The other side of the internet censorship as it exists today in China is that domestic websites hire internal censors to scrub their services of politically “sensitive” comments and other objectionable material. Chinese internet companies that allow for user-generated content are required to maintain large content teams that sift through user submissions for pornography, politically sensitive material, and anything else that’s deemed objectionable by the company. What gets deleted is based in part on Chinese law, in part on the company’s own standards, and in part on a vague estimation of what’s edgy-but-allowed and what’s going too far. Sometimes companies get it wrong and are ordered to take down objectionable content by government entities, but a lot of the censorship on Chinese websites is technically self-imposed, with the government as the impetus for the deletions but still having no actual direct role in the censorship process.
Now that we know exactly what’s happening, though, let’s imagine what would happen if tomorrow, it all stopped. What if tomorrow, China’s internet suddenly became free?
Social and political changes?
The first and perhaps most obvious question is whether or not China’s internet becoming free would lead to significant social change off the internet. Much has been written about the social power of new media tools like Weibo, but what would actually change?
CNBlogs.org founder and general China tech and web guru Isaac Mao told me he thought an open internet would lead to more social activism as the free internet connected long-isolated communities of like-minded people who might then be inclined to work together offline. “[Offline] action [could] be definitely mobilized easily via free connected online media,” Mao said.
Danwei founder Jeremy Goldkorn told me that he expected artists to be deeply affected by the advent of a free internet, too. “[Unblocking the internet] would lead to a great flowering of Chinese creativity in the arts, film, gaming, electronic publishing, media and e-commerce,” Goldkorn said.
Everyone I spoke with agreed that whatever other effects it might have on society, a free internet would force a greater degree of honesty and transparency from both the government and Chinese companies. As Jeremy Goldkorn put it:
An open Internet would place the government and companies under a great deal of scrutiny which would lead to more openness and make corruption more difficult, but would also lead to political battles and competition between companies playing out in a nasty and vicious way online.
Could that transparency (and that public ugliness) bring an end to the one-party rule of the CCP? Isaac Mao thinks so. He didn’t want to speculate on a specific timeline, but he said that “the CCP is the natural enemy of freedom” and that eventually only one of those two things can survive.
Sinocism founder Bill Bishop was not so sure. “They [the CCP] have survived plenty of challenges,” he said, and as long as they continue to deliver an increasing quality of life for Chinese citizens, they might be able to survive a free internet, too. “But,” he added, ”if the transparency and accountability that an uncensored Internet provides are anathema to the Party then probably not. [...] Ideological work is one of the key pillars for the Party going back to its founding, and a free for all Internet may corrode that pillar even faster than the current managed one.”
How would the new internet look?
Online, of course, the potential changes are a bit easier to predict and everyone agreed that they would be significant. With that said, it probably wouldn’t be an immediately obvious change for some Chinese users. While Bill Bishop said he expected weibo users would notice the changes immediately, Isaac Mao hypothesized that many Chinese users might not even notice as they would stick to their traditional patterns of browsing — patterns that don’t tend to include a lot of foreign websites or political content.
But the change could be dramatic for some Chinese internet companies, especially those that have benefitted from their chief foreign competitors being blocked domestically. Would Google reenter China and threaten Baidu? Would Twitter pose a strong challenge to Sina Weibo?
Bill Bishop hypothesized that most Chinese social media sites would continue to thrive as language and localization issues (not to mention massive userbases already familiar with their products) would still give them a leg up over domestic companies. “The bigger Chinese firms, and the ones with very Chinese-centric user design like Tencent and Sina (Weibo) would probably be fine.” But he also said that Renren might be threatened and that he thought Google would re-enter China and pose a strong challenge to Baidu.
Isaac Mao agreed on all counts, saying that Renren might be threatened by Facebook because of the latter’s “established greater Chinese community” but that Twitter would likely find it “harder to compete with some local copycats.” He also agreed that Google could re-enter China and pose a real threat to Baidu.
But it wouldn’t all be bad news for Chinese internet companies. Isaac Mao forsees a free internet as favoring creative Chinese startups by “stimulating more innovations” and “fostering fair play.” And Bill Bishop speculated that “transparency might break the black PR industry, and might unleash talent to create better products.”
And the folks from Greatfire.org pointed out that removing the Great Firewall might even have direct advantages for trade:
Chinese web companies could expand into other markets. The GFW, in a sense, is just a massive piece of trade protectionism. If it were removed, trade would increase in both directions. In the current climate, a Chinese web company has little incentive to expand because what they do is “service X in China”. Without the GFW, they would simply be doing “service X” and want to reach a market as large as possible, anywhere in the world. Sina Weibo, for example, is a really innovative service which could very likely be successful in other countries, were it not for the complications added by censorship.
Of course, “What would happen if China’s internet was uncensored?” is a broad and highly speculative question that’s virtually impossible to answer. When I posed it to Goldkorn, his immediate response probably sums up the general feeling:
It’s almost impossible for me to imagine China without Internet censorship; it’s like trying to imagine the USA without capitalism.
For the record, then, I’m very grateful to everyone who spoke with me and put themselves out there in speculating about something that, all of them and I agree, isn’t exactly about to happen. Although social media like Sina Weibo has made China’s society a bit more open than it once was, the government seems to be of the opinion that the pros of a closed system continue to outweigh the cons, and it seems happy to forgo the advantages for trade, innovation, and the arts that might come with a free internet if that means it can more control what information gets released (and thus prevent the most “harmful” information from influencing public opinion or behaviour).