The internet has been a fantastic achievement to mark humanity’s technological progress. It’s allowed global communication and the instant transportation of news, shrinking our world to the size of a pocket. However, as a source of freedom becomes commonplace within chat-rooms and forums across the infinite internet, we’ve entered a social dark age – one of censorship and misinformation that will most likely be looked back upon as a sheer shadow of a dystopian novel by George Orwell.
It’s fun to note that the internet, in its earliest stages, was created by the United States Department of Defense in an essential attempt to facilitate better communications among a connected system of command at local, state, and national levels. Developed in the early 1970s by DARPA (the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), the World Wide Web was launched as an effective way to, simply, exchange information quickly.
Although the Defense Department proposed the basic idea and laid out the foundation for its earliest concept, it took several years for the internet to be used on a wide scale by both the government officials that created it and everyday civilians. By the late 1980s, however, the internet emerged as a powerful and public source.
The internet spread like wildfire, expanding into Europe and Australia in the early 1980s and reaching Asia by the early 1990s. By 1995, the internet was fully commercialized within the United States, after the government decommissioned several projects and removed the last restrictions on public internet commercial traffic.
Since then, the internet has impacted every aspect of our society: from culture to commerce. The introduction of emails, instant messaging, interactive video calls, and web browsers to find information on the fly all came together to create an experience that no one had ever seen before.
Forums were birthed from the success of intercommunication, leading the onslaught of personal opinions and the first “internet hoaxes”. From there we made blogs, independent websites where just about anyone can say whatever they want. In an attempt to be closer to each other without ever leaving the comfort of our homes, we opened up expansive social networking services and online shopping mediums.
As the internet expanded, so did humanity’s interest in it. We’ve created more data within the last two years than we have throughout all of history! It’s incredibly impactful, don’t you think?
But not everyone on Earth is graced with such technological freedom. Not even people that you’d expect. Many governments have regulatory censorship, or at least try to have some sort of censorship. Even democracies attempt to shape it in some way shape or form, including the internet’s home country of America. With bills like SOPA and PIPA frightening the everyday blogger and the awkward suggestions of limiting how much data should be transmitted at a time floating throughout a Republican Congress, the internet is freedom locked within a limited cage of access.
But let’s look at China, the so-called “up and coming” economic powerhouse that is managing to produce more of the world’s equipment and goods than just about anywhere else. China joined the internet party in May of 1989, sporadically taking it down and randomly bringing it back until April 20th, 1994 when it permanently became a part of the Chinese lifestyle. As population rises, so does the internet’s level of usage. By 2008, China became the largest population on the internet itself.
With loads of people using the internet comes loads of attention to the country itself. Let me put this in perspective: by the end of December 2013, China had about 618 million regular internet users. Within just seven months in June of 2014, China’s internet population rose to 632 million. By this point, in such a short span, the mobile device industry overtook the PC industry in China by about 3.4%, causing an interesting correlation between population and usage of the internet in “first world” countries.
In June 2011, the Chinese spent an average of almost 19 hours online per week, resulting in a total of about 472 billion hours collectively spent online that year. If my calculations are correct (I’m not a math guy!), that means about 53,881 years’ worth of time was spent online in China amongst their population within a single year!
According to Kaiser Kuo, the Chinese use the internet mostly for entertainment purposes, making it commonly known as the “entertainment superhighway” within China’s borders. Most go online to find music or videos on BBS and other web forums. Many read the news and search for daily information. A sizeable percentage seem to have blogs where common and daily thoughts are put out for fun. From videos making fun of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to montages of cute cats in funny hats, China seems to enjoy “proper” internet entertainment.
While Google is the daily norm throughout most of the world, over 60% of Chinese internet users turn to Baidu, a half-Wikipedia half-search engine hybrid that has been a leading censorship controversy since day one of its inception. Meanwhile, Wikipedia itself was banned and blocked in China up until 2008. Since then only pages deemed “controversial” by the Chinese government have been blocked.
While submitting political information remains a big no for Chinese internet users and restrictions run rampant on controversial topics concerning media, revolution, and government itself – sex managed to break through the seal of approval for a short period of time. As early as 2004, online sex diaries and scantily clad pictures surfaced on the front page of this Chinese Wide Web, leading to extreme eroticization and criticizing from reporters across the mainstream and mainland news media.
Several of these sorts of blogs were blocked, and they remain off limits to this day. The Chinese government has since pushed for continuous advancements against sexual content online, purging topless photos and deleting “adult” chat sites in Chinese name while blocking foreign content. However, as we should expect, policing an entire internet is time consuming, and the Chinese government manages to be ignorant of the existence of several chatrooms.
The Political Economy of the Internet in Asia and the Pacific Digital Divides, Economic Competitiveness, and Security Challenges by Jason P. Abbot explains what no Chinese individual can do on the internet:
Inciting to resist or breaking the Constitution or laws or the implementation of administrative regulations;
Inciting to overthrow the government or the socialist system;
Inciting division of the country, harming national unification;
Inciting hatred or discrimination among nationalities or harming the unity of the nationalities;
Making falsehoods or distorting the truth, spreading rumors, destroying the order of society;
Promoting feudal superstitions, sexually suggestive material, gambling, violence, murder;
Terrorism or inciting others to criminal activity; openly insulting other people or distorting the truth to slander people;
Injuring the reputation of state organizations;
Other activities against the Constitution, laws or administrative regulations.
Internet censorship is extreme within China’s version of the internet, based on the foundations of laws and administrative regulations that aren’t going away anytime soon. More than sixty internet regulations have been made by the Chinese government, forcefully implemented by state owned Internet Service Providers and private companies that monitor the federal IP system.
The amount of control and censorship is so extensive that the largest sector of the world’s internet system is totally monitored by their federal extensions. This “Great Firewall of China” watches the internet access of individuals while blocking content deemed unfit for the citizens of the nation. The size of this internet police force? As of 2013, it’s been reported to be around 2 million.
China has the largest recorded number of imprisoned and “cyber-dissidents” in the entire world, arresting and incarcerating users of the internet for a wide variety of crimes ranging from communicating with foreign groups, signing online petitions, calling for reform, or mentioning corruption of any kind.
Some Chinese activists have cheated the system here, using homophones and code words for some of the banned activities forced by the government. IPs are frequently changed frequently in an attempt to dodge tracking. Very few VPNs manage to get past the Great Firewall’s blacklist, but every now and again they slide past.
While the rest of the world LOL’s and LMAO’s away on YouTube and platforms that encourage freedom of speech, it seems that most of China’s internet has isolated itself into a “protected” version of itself. Censorship runs rampant, laws justify the arrest of anyone who uses it out of the identified purposes of the internet, and anything that is deemed as “controversial” is immediately blocked without a second thought.
In short, this could very well be one of the examples history books will point to as a reason why our global society lives in a dark age of misinformation during a century that brought forth widespread information in almost every form. Have a website and want to know if you’ve been blocked in China? Checkout the Great Firewall of China.