Jamie Bartlett

Who’s Afraid of the World Wide Web?

The Great Firewall of China: How to Build and Control an Alternative Version of the Internet

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Zed Books 385pp £20 order from our bookshop

India Connected: How the Smartphone is Transforming the World’s Largest Democracy

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Oxford University Press 230pp £18 order from our bookshop

The only thing the Chinese and Indian experiences of the internet have in common is how ignorant we are about them in the West. Fortunately, two superb and perfectly timed books have arrived to spare our blushes.

James Griffiths’s The Great Firewall of China tells the twenty-year story of how the Chinese authorities have brought the internet to heel by slowly developing and enforcing the doctrine of ‘cyber-sovereignty’. It’s also a story of naivety and misjudged optimism. Back in 2000, Bill Clinton told a Chinese trade delegation that cracking down on the internet would be like ‘trying to nail jello to the wall … good luck’. But the Chinese authorities didn’t need luck. They just needed time, planning and money. 

So how have they managed to control the web? It’s surprisingly simple. Nearly all internet connections between China and the rest of the world go via three choke points: Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. The authorities run ‘deep packet inspection’ to check what’s coming in and ban certain IP addresses. Western companies are complicit: Griffiths singles out the Silicon Valley giant Cisco Systems, which began supplying filtering and surveillance equipment to the Chinese in the early 1990s. Another tech giant, Google, comes in for a well-deserved and artfully delivered kicking for applying Beijing’s censorship requirements unprompted, a clear example of how the company would rather pursue profit than follow its stated mission of doing no harm. Griffiths’s account of an enjoyably disastrous Senate hearing, at which several tech companies were dragged over the coals, is worth the price of the book alone.

As Griffiths explains, control is subtler than just blocking and filtering. For example, all internet content providers are held liable for what appears on their websites, under the sinister ‘you yourself decide’ code of practice, whereby government organisations purport to give providers free rein while subtly forcing them into compliance, making them risk-averse and turning them into draconian censors. Then there’s the remarkable distraction machinery: the authorities employ hundreds of thousands of people to divert online chat away from politics by spamming threads with frivolities. Griffiths also discusses the Black Mirror-esque ‘social credit system’, which sees citizens ranked in almost every aspect of their lives. He describes some of the ingenious tactics employed by bloggers and dissenters to try to get around all this, but it’s clear that they are up against an almost invincible opponent.

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’.

Thankfully the Indian government is largely ignoring the Chinese lesson. The contrast between Griffiths’s account and the jaunty, uplifting stories in Ravi Agrawal’s India Connected could hardly be starker. In China, the internet ensures that nothing can change. In India, it’s doing the opposite. (In fact, I strongly recommend you read these two books one after the other, as I did, to hammer home the differences.)

Agrawal, like Griffiths, has the journalist’s knack of finding fascinating stories, and both write in an economical, highly readable style. But while The Great Firewall of China is full of stark scenes in boxy buildings, India Connected is packed with likeable and upbeat characters. These include the heroic ‘internet saathi’ Phoolwati, who cycles around Rajasthani villages preaching the internet’s usefulness (‘we finally have some straws to clutch on to,’ she tells the author). There’s Abdul Wahid, a slightly bonkers but inspiring educationalist running a successful tutoring business near Jaipur. What unites most of the book’s characters is digital optimism. Millions of people, reckons Agrawal, feel ‘unbound by their fates, by their castes, families, and traditions’. After months of negative tech bashing, it’s refreshing to be reminded of the internet’s positives – like how valuable voice technology is in a country where only 66 per cent of women are literate.

India has leapfrogged the personal computer: thanks mostly to cheap smartphones, the number of Indians online has gone from twenty million in 2000 to well over five hundred million today. Inevitably, the speed of change is creating major tensions and problems, and Agrawal doesn’t shy away from them. A fascinating chapter about the dating app Truly Madly tells how for one couple true love came at the cost of familial estrangement. We worry about fake news in the UK, but in India it has been deadly and will probably get worse. I would have liked a little more about politics – Modi’s infamous troll army are presumably limbering up for the forthcoming general election – but that’s mostly because I didn’t want the book to end.

In one important respect India is more like China than I’ve let on: it is the world leader in digital blackouts. For five months in 2016, Kashmir had no internet at all. The Aadhaar biometric identity system introduced by the Indian government is also, as Agrawal readily admits, potentially very bad for privacy.

Taken together, these two fascinating books remind us of one important truth: that technology does not change society in a set direction. Much depends on who’s in charge and the decisions they make. I doubt even democratic European states are immune from the allure of control and stability that the Chinese model seems to provide. Given the growing economic and diplomatic strength of both countries, the future of the internet will be shaped by the competing visions and policies of these two powerhouses, not by countries like the UK. In the end, India shows how the internet can build trust, while China shows how it can decimate it. On that basis, we should all pray that India’s vision – for all its problems – wins out.

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