If China removes itself from the Internet, what impact would that have? I don’t mean that China won’t have the Internet, or even that it will cut itself off entirely from international connections, but what if, for all practical purposes China operates on a different, separate Internet? What would removing the world’s largest Internet using population (380 million, one-fifth of the total) mean to the rest of the Internet? It could happen. Some say it is happening. The row between Google and the government of China over censorship is but the tip of the network control iceberg.
It’s been almost an article of faith that the free, open, all-inclusive Internet is, one: the only way the Internet can be, and two: righteous. The real-world says otherwise. Internet traffic is monitored or censored in more countries than not. At least fifteen countries fully censor all aspects of the Internet. The censorship of the Chinese government is not exceptional except in its relative competence. More importantly, the line between the political and ideological censorship; and the willing acceptance of censorship for nationalistic reasons is already sometimes indistinguishable in China.
For those who are interested in how the dynamic force of the Internet is, or isn’t, affecting China, I recommend a good article in the London Financial Times by Kathrin Hille: The internet: A missing link. It’s about China, its government paranoia and drive to isolate information, but also the differences compared to most of the world between China, its culture, and the way its people use the Internet. Here are a few samples:
At the forefront was Google, the world’s richest media and internet company. Justifying their decision to bow to censorship four years ago, its executives argued that this was the first step towards a freer Chinese web, with their local search service one of the main forces helping break down barriers to the flow of information.
They were wrong. Instead, China has developed its own cyberspace. It is growing less like the internet in the rest of the world, not more like it. And it is not just the baleful presence of a vast, assertive and highly flexible censorship apparatus that accounts for this evolution: the formative forces of “.cn” also include cultural preferences and social structures that are very different from those of the west. Google itself has often struggled to adapt to these differences.
One reason for these difficulties is that US companies took a long time to realise that Chinese people use the web differently from their counterparts in other markets. Simply put, they tend to roam the web like a huge playground, whereas Europeans and Americans are more likely to use it as a gigantic library. Recent research by the McKinsey consultancy suggests Chinese users spend most of their time online on entertainment while their European peers are much more focused on work.
Losing China from the Internet (as most of the world knows it) has some immediate consequences – the loss of commercial activity and opportunity, which is relatively easy to quantify, and a great many intangible losses – loss of personal contacts, loss of important information (both ways), the end of collaborative projects. The long-term impact on China may be greater than for any other country. Unfortunately, the intangible losses are easy to state, hard to quantify. Besides, in all likelihood China will continue to allow some elements of the ‘mainstream’ Internet, so that a total blackout of all things outside of China is unlikely. (The Chinese, like so many of this world, are enthralled by Western, which is to say American, pop culture.)
What many other countries will be watching, is how China weighs the balance between using the Internet for its own purposes, and keeping out that which does not serve its purposes. This is often as much a technical question, as it is one of policy. How will China do it? What are the effects? Does imposed censorship work, or is it necessary to instill self-imposed censorship? All good questions for the authoritarian governments of the world. China will be the laboratory…as in so many other things, the great experiment in social engineering.