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We are all familiar enough with the internet now to realize that it’s not a magical, virtual, hyper-human neuron network and is in fact just another medium – a means of communication that can be shut off, censored, and corrupted in just the same way as newspapers, radio, or TV – if not more so. It will not topple dictators; it will not deliver us from evil.
The very gradual opening up of North Korea with visitors this month able to access unrestricted mobile internet for the first time ever – but not so for locals – will ultimately prove to be a very brief period of digital docility. For North Korea’s regime to go on with any level of control over its people and the nation’s propagandized creation myth, it will have to censor its fledgling internet as severely as any other medium. A fast-track to censorship could be buying a Great Firewall from neighbouring China.
Historically as close “as lips and teeth”, China and North Korea have an affinity that lends itself to offering brotherly guidance (admittedly, that accord is mostly evident at the level of Communist comrades, not among younger Chinese who see themselves more in the image of South Korea’s young and wealthy consumers).
China can indeed teach North Korea a lot. Having gone through an astonishing opening up that lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty and brought over half a billion people online and onto social networks, China never left its internet totally unrestricted. In the early days of the internet there, when only tens of millions were online, it started to manage the web exactly the same way as newspapers – by creating a culture of self-censorship and media-level eradication of dissent so that the actual government censors don’t have to do much more than issue regular media directives. It’s all massively efficient.
The social web “battleground”
China’s Great Firewall initially blocked only smaller sites that contained ‘sensitive’ material or stirred up dissent, but by 2007 the web filtering system was advanced enough to take down the world’s largest social sites. YouTube looks like an inconvenience? Bam, it’s gone. Facebook could pollute our nation’s youth? Click, it no longer exists. China feels – as North Korea’s young ruler Kim Jong-un must surely agree – that a full, free-flowing web is not compatible with the way it wants to handle the spread of information, so the internet was brought under control — even real-time social media like Sina Weibo — as easily as was done with TV stations and all print media.
It is, to quote writer and researcher Rebecca MacKinnon, “networked authoritarianism” that leaves the internet open enough for casual entertainment and doing business – China’s netizens spend a dizzying US$40 000 per second on domestic e-commerce sites – whilst also neutering dissent. Of course, it is also a fluid process, and there are examples of China’s web and social media enacting small degrees of change or greater transparency from authorities; MacKinnon quotes Chinese blogger Michael Anti in calling it a public opinion “battlefield” where small victories are sometimes won by the people.
It seems to be the best solution, so to speak. It’s exactly what North Korea will need to continue if it’s not going to open up to the extent of Myanmar. It’s far more likely for Kim Jong-un to go the Chinese route.
In the most recent Freedom on the Net 2012 study, China rose to become Asia’s worst new freedom offender. With North Korea not included on the list and Myanmar improving significantly, it was an inevitable tumble for China in the rankings. But can all that web filtering expertise be exported?
In theory, it’s a big market for Chinese tech companies but it’s one hampered by sanctions against nations like Iran and North Korea. While China’s Great Firewall was built, allegedly, by Western companies like Cisco and Siemens, its own major telecom firms have had time since that initial implementation to learn the mechanics. The controversial and much-scrutinized Huawei, according to the WSJ in 2011, “dominates Iran’s government-controlled mobile-phone industry” and thereby “plays a role in enabling Iran’s state security network.”
The paper adds:
Huawei recently signed a contract to install equipment for a system at Iran’s largest mobile-phone operator that allows police to track people based on the locations of their cellphones, according to interviews with telecom employees both in Iran and abroad, and corporate bidding documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. It also has provided support for similar services at Iran’s second-largest mobile-phone provider. Huawei notes that nearly all countries require police access to cell networks, including the U.S.
Toughened sanctions since that time have reportedly reduced Huawei’s involvement in Iran, just as with many nations abiding by UN economic sanctions. While no evidence exists of such Chinese tech exports to North Korea, there’s the technological know-how for that to happen – if not from Huawei, then from other sources. Even a North Korea that, in one or two years from now, is engaged in reform, will still find itself under such UN-mandated restrictions, putting pressure on China not to build a Great Firewall for its neighbour.
Despite all that, I believe North Korea’s internet – which is now more open than China’s, so long as you’re a tourist who pays up for its over-priced mobile internet packages – will soon get into shape. That means it’ll be, like all media in the country – and as perfected by China – just another form of tightly gagged communication.
This article by Steven Millward originally appeared on Tech in Asia, a Burn Media publishing partner.