Friday, February 05, 2010

OU/BBC Virtual Revolution on China and Google

A few weeks ago Google announced, in the wake of ‘a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure’ and to widespread plaudits in the Western media at least, that the company was taking a stand against China.  They would no longer censor Chinese search results in accordance with the local laws and if the government didn’t like it then they would withdraw their business from the country.  US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, subsequently criticised China over the attacks and called on Google to avoid facilitating "politically motivated censorship".

In The Enemy of the State, the second programme of the OU/BBC's The Virtual Revolution series, Dr Aleks Krotoski looks at China via the notion of a digital arms race between the individual and the state, a model through which the government attempts to control the individual by mass censorship, propaganda and surveillance. 

Many people are aware of the “Great Firewall of China”, the internet filters deployed by China to censor web pages containing terms like ‘Falun Gong’, ‘Dalai Lama’ or ‘Tiananmen Square massacre’.  Yahoo!, another big US technology company, has been accused of working “regularly and efficiently with the Chinese police" to hand over the personal details of dissident web bloggers, leading to terms of 8 and 10 years respectively for Li Zhi and Shi Tao for criticising their government.  Microsoft, Cisco and numerous other global companies have also been vilified for cooperating in censoring the web in China.  Most defend themselves, as Google do, “in the belief that the benefits of increased access to information for people in China and a more open Internet outweighed our discomfort in agreeing to censor some results.”

As an Irish, white, middle class academic, resident in the UK, I can grumble about unethical behaviour of big business and the poor human rights record of regimes like China or Iran through the lens of a simplistic algorithm:

China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korea = totalitarian states


Censorship + surveillance = scary + bad


Citizen anonymity = necessary + good

Yet such smug simplistic models rarely tell the real story.  It is not just the supposed totalitarian states that are engaged in large scale censorship and surveillance. Freedom of speech has never been an absolute. Even in the US, where it is protected by the first amendment to the constitution, citizens don’t have the freedom to yell “fire!” in a crowded theatre.

At the behest of the UK government, in response to a failed attempt to blow up a plane with explosives hidden in the attacker’s underpants, Heathrow Airport has installed digital strip search machines for the masses.  UK Transport Secretary Andrew Andonis said: "In the immediate future, only a small proportion of airline passengers will be selected for scanning. If a passenger is selected for scanning, and declines, they will not be permitted to fly."  You will not be allowed on a plane at Heathrow if you refuse to go through a digital strip search when asked. 

Laws in the UK, US and a range of other Western democracies require surveillance capability to be built into our communications networks, large scale data retention and the construction of large databases of personal information, all in the name of combating terrorism, crime or protecting children and intellectual property.  Wide scale censorship of the Net takes place not just in China and Saudi Arabia but in the UK, parts of the US, Canada, Spain, France, Australia, Germany and many other countries in an attempt to block such horrors as child pornography or Nazi propaganda.  Yet that is ok in the simplistic model of the world I presented earlier:

UK, US, Germany, France = democracies


Censorship + surveillance = necessary to protect children + stop terrorists


Anonymity = bad, if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear

But the model quickly breaks down on all fronts when examined in any detail.  Firstly you have to realise that software filters, known by critics as ‘censorware’, don’t do value judgments.  They often censor perfectly legitimate sites and fail to block illegal ones.  They often also censor websites which are critical of the companies selling the filter software. And in 1999 a big US internet service provider, IDT, shut down all internet traffic originating in the UK because of a spam problem they traced to a computer at Leeds University

Secondly, anyone with even the mildest understanding of the value of personal privacy has no time for the over-used empty soundbite ‘nothing to hide nothing to fear’, deployed regularly by politicians with large database ‘cures’ for various societal ills.

And thirdly, the thing about technical and legal architectures of surveillance is they are not the exclusive playground of the good guys.  The Internet makes our world more complicated not less so.  Government computers are widely and virtually irreversibly networked with private sector machines; and governments have not got a great record of building totally reliable, fit-for-purpose, secure information systems.  Large, valuable, porous information systems with built-in surveillance tools are very attractive targets for individuals, organisations and states with malign intent. 

They also have a tendency to be misused by public officials because they are convenient to use.  So for example council officials in the UK use anti-terror laws and technical facilities to spy on families suspected of lying on their forms when applying to get their children into good state schools.  After the terrorist attacks of 11th September 2001, then President George W. Bush ordered the National Security Agency to use surveillance systems hardwired into the telecoms network to illegally engage in mass warrantless wiretapping of the phone conversations of tens of thousands of people.* 

Although there have been a variety of instances of US military information finding its way into Chinese hands via the hacking of US military systems and possibly vice versa, we have not yet really seen a whole lot of this.  But as Ross Anderson says in the Virtual Revolution, as the world becomes more connected the opportunity for nations to do bad things to each other will increase, especially since the tools of surveillance and espionage are literally being designed and built into our communications systems.

Ironically, by building a surveillance infrastructure in the name of security, Western governments and commercial organisations are making us much less secure not more so.  Systems with no such in-built surveillance tools, but instead constructed on the principles of “net neutrality”** supported by President Obama recently in his first state of the union address, are more secure.

I’m not suggesting the UK government have anything like the totalitarian intent of the cold war East German or Soviet regimes or that MI5 or MI6 have the terrifying influence of the Stasi, the KGB or the Nazi SS.  Gordon Brown is certainly no Mao Zedong and respected journalists like Henry Porter or former Information Commissioner Richard Thomas are not going to suddenly be detained and locked up for 10 years for repeatedly accusing the government of “sleepwalking into a surveillance state”.  But we continue to construct and expand these systems at our peril and the threats they pose are real not virtual.

In the spring of 2004 over 100 mobile phones used by key members of the Greek government including the Prime Minister, minister for justice and foreign minister were subject to covert wiretapping which lasted for over a year.  It’s still not clear who did the spying but the facility to do it was built into the Vodaphone phones by Ericsson.  It was only supposed to be switched on if permission was granted through appropriate legal processes.  Somebody figured out how to switch it on. Without permission.

A leaked MI5 memo, in recent days, has outlined the problem of Chinese spying on UK business both through conventional and electronic means.  Again China is the bad guy, this time using the internet for industrial espionage rather than waging war on its own citizens.

The services and components of the global surveilled communications infrastructure,  apparently used by China for such nefarious activities, are supplied by global corporations like Vodaphone, Ericsson, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Apple, Cisco, Intel, Nokia, Siemens and yes, Google; as well as dynamic home grown manufacturing industry within China and other cheap manufacturing bases like India.  These companies variously do business in the EU, the Americas, Eastern Europe, Middle East and Asia because such business provides a return for their shareholders.  To the degree that such business facilitates economic development in countries like China, and the consequent improvement of overall living standards, that’s generally a good thing.  To the extent that it facilitates the suppression of basic civil rights, such companies need to be more active in engaging with the Chinese authorities in ways that can influence them to respect such rights more widely and more wisely.

Time will tell what effect the current Google exchanges with the emerging economic superpower will have.  As to whether it is enlightening to view the Web in the context of China through the model of a digital arms race between the individual and the state, I’ll leave you the reader to decide. 

But the final word goes to James Fallows, who has regularly and eloquently argued that China’s relations with the West are more complex and potentially beneficial for both sides, that “China is a still-poor, highly-diverse and individualistic country whose development need not "threaten" anyone else and should be encouraged” but also warns:

“In a strange and striking way there is an inversion of recent Chinese and U.S. roles. In the switch from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, the U.S. went from a president much of the world saw as deliberately antagonizing them to a president whose Nobel Prize reflected (perhaps desperate) gratitude at his efforts at conciliation. China, by contrast, seems to be entering its Bush-Cheney era. For Chinese readers, let me emphasize again my argument that China is not a "threat" and that its development is good news for mankind. But its government is on a path at the moment that courts resistance around the world. To me, that is what Google's decision signifies.”
* For a really interesting perspective on phone tapping in historical context is it worth having a look at this Pathé News clip from 1957, , on the widespread shock over the illegal wiretapping of a phone conversation between a UK barrister Patrick Marriman and his client, a known and self confessed criminal, Billy Hill.Thanks to Richard Lamont via the ukcrypto list for the pointer to that little gem.

** See Chris Marsden’s new book 'Net neutrality: towards a co-regulatory solution' just published by Bloomsbury for a comprehensive treatment of the subject. It's available for free download under a creative commons licence at

Further Reading

Battelle, John (2005) The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture. Nicholas Brealey Publishing. Boston, London.

Vise, David A. (2005) The Google Story: Inside the Hottest Business, Media and Technology Success of Our Time. Macmillan. New York.

Jacques, Martin (2009) When China Rules the World: The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World. Allen Lane. New York, London, Toronto, Dublin, Victoria, New Delhi, Rosebank

Keay, John (2008) China: A History. HarperPress. London

Report of the Committee of Privy Councillors appointed to inquire into the interception of communications. Presented to Parliament by the Prime Minister by Command of Her Majesty October 1957.

Solove, Daniel J. (2004) The Digital Person: technology and privacy in the information age. New York University Press.  New York, London.

O’Harrow, Robert Jr. (2005) No Place to Hide. Free Press. New York

Garton Ash, Timothy (1997) The File: A Personal History. Harper Collins.  London.

Radden Keefe, Patrick (2005) Chatter: Dispatches from the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping. Random House. New York

Diffie, Whitfield and Landau, Susan (2007) Privacy On The Line: The Politics of Wiretapping and Encryption.  MIT Press. Cambridge, London.

Web, Maureen (2007) Illusions of Security: Global Surveillance and Democracy in a Post-9/11 World.  City Lights Books. New York.

Schneier, Bruce (2008) Schneier on Security. Wiley Publishing Inc. Indianapolis.

Anderson, Ross (2008) Security Engineering: A Guide to Building Dependable Distributed Systems, 2nd Edition. Wiley Publishing Inc. Indianapolis.

Lessig, Lawrence (1999) Code and other laws of cyberspace. Basic Books. New York.

Privacy International Leading Surveillance Societies in the World Map 2007[347]=x-347-559597

Open Net Initiative

Benjamin Edelman's publications on internet filtering. (You need to scroll down to near the end of the page).

Update: An edited version of this post is now available on the Virtual Revolution blog and  if you have a really strong stomach you can watch my video contributions here and here.

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