The New York Times recently ran an article titled “How China walled off the internet.” In it, author Raymond Zhong starts by quoting former President Bill Clinton, who once described China’s aspirations to police the internet as akin to “nail[ing] Jell-o to a wall.” The prevailing attitude at the time, as exemplified by President Clinton’s statement, was that the internet would be “the great democratizer.” To the extent that any would-be censor tried to limit that, it would be at the expense of innovation and creativity, right?
“Wrong!” Zhong breathlessly announces.
He then goes on to describe China’s internet companies as being the only ones that can “match America’s in ambition and reach.” The country is “years ahead” of the United States,” he says, with “a supernova of creative expression” online. In fact, Zhong writes, “American social media executives” are now looking to Chinese companies like TenCent, ByteDance, TikTok, Alibaba, Weibo and Baidu for inspiration on how to innovate, impress their customers, and “keep them glued” to their devices.
Buried in the effusive praise, however, are some sobering statements like this one:
“All this, on a patch of cyberspace that is walled off from Facebook and Google, policed by tens of thousands of censors and subject to strict controls on how data is collected, stored and shared.”
And this one:
“In China, there is pretty much only one rule, and it is simple: Don’t undermine the state. So titans like Weibo and Baidu heed censorship orders. Unwanted beliefs and ideologies are kept out.”
And that’s not all the companies do to make the Chinese government happy:
“[T]he best way for tech companies to thrive in China is to make themselves useful to the state. Nearly everyone in China uses WeChat, making the social network a great way for the authorities to police what people say and do. SenseTime, whose facial recognition technology powers those fun filters in video apps, also sells software to law enforcement.”
In addition to selling technology to the Chinese government, companies also collect and provide data.
One fact becomes startlingly clear. The Chinese government is using technology like facial recognition, drones, and artificial intelligence on a scale unmatched anywhere else in the world as part of its burgeoning “social credit” surveillance system, which seeks to monitor all of its 1.4 billion residents, looking to catch everything from serious crimes to jaywalking, cutting in lines or spitting on the sidewalk. Penalties for socially undesirable behavior can include denial of travel privileges (taking the train or purchasing plane tickets) or the admission of children into preferred schools. And while the “social credit” monitoring system is patchy at present, it’s predicted that China will have 300 million cameras installed around the country by 2020.
Raymond Zhong marvels at China’s rapid pace of innovation, saying, “If people in the West didn’t see this coming, it was because they mistook China’s authoritarianism for hostility toward technology.”
To the contrary, we understood China’s authoritarianism to be hostility to liberty, not technology. There’s nothing particularly novel – or surprising – about the government’s use of tech as a tool to spy on and censor citizens. (Dystopic fiction writers like George Orwell and Aldous Huxley predicted it decades ago.) In the old Soviet Union (and in Mao’s China), individuals ratted each other out to the communist authorities. The only difference now is that tech companies are ratting out their fellow citizens on a more widespread scale – and for profit.
And while China’s use of technology to achieve its authoritarian ends is appalling, it’s not much better here.
US tech behemoths Facebook, Apple, Google, Instagram and Twitter are aggregating staggering amounts of users’ personal data. Security breaches pose a threat, as does the prospect of selling that data to the highest bidder or disclosing it to the government. Google and Facebook have been credibly accused of “curating” news and information to stifle conservative viewpoints and suppress facts that run counter to progressive policies and popular narratives. The CEOs of Facebook and Twitter were called to testify before Congress about “censoring” conservatives. Twitter has been most recently under scrutiny for suspending and banning accounts of conservatives like Laura Loomer and Jesse Kelly.
YouTube was sued by conservative author Dennis Prager, who argued that his PragerU videos were being censored by the media giant. The suit was dismissed when the judge declared that a private company was not a “state actor” (arm of government), and so its decisions were not “censorship.”
But as Raymond Zhong’s article demonstrates, the distinction between “government” and “private enterprise” is becoming increasingly blurred, as governments use private companies to effect their censorious policies, and major multinational companies grow so enormous that they are de facto public utilities. (Imagine the old phone company threatening to cut off your service because the CEO didn’t like what you said on your conversations.)
Scratch the surface of the Chinese government and the “progressive” leadership of US tech giants, and you find disturbing similarities: the desire to silence views with which they disagree in pursuit of their vision of collective virtue and social utopia; the willingness to use all technological means at their disposal to accomplish those aims; and a shocking lack of humility that comes from too much power.
We may have thought that technology would bring freedom. Not anymore.