Fragmenting the internet – beyond and within the Great Firewall
In the first of a series of articles about China’s role in shaping the future of the internet, Kai von Carnap says that the China-wide web is different to the worldwide web both by design and accident.
In the late 1990’s, while Silicon Valley started collapsing under the Dotcom bubble, many coastal cities in China saw the genesis of their world-renowned tech behemoths. But rather than becoming the global competitors of the likes of Apple, Google and co., China’s tech platforms looked inwards to strengthen their “walled gardens”, closed ecosystems in which the provider has control over content and participation rules with the aim of creating a monopoly. They now look set to fragment the global internet as they make China’s less anonymous and more exclusive.
International users of Chinese web platforms are finding these internet services ever less accessible. Contrary to the global convention to link user accounts to e-mail addresses, Chinese platforms are asking users to sign up with their mobile phone numbers. Partly the consequence of China’s internet use having been driven by mobile devices, this practice allows platforms to filter access by ostensible nationality. Would-be users can often only sign up using selected phone-number prefixes – and sometimes only with Chinese numbers.
International users are also finding it harder to call up some Chinese websites. Websites all over the world use so-called geo-blocking to restrict access to subscribers in certain regions – BBC content, for example, is only available in the United Kingdom. But there is a growing amount of anecdotal evidence that Chinese websites, both commercial and governmental, have started geo-blocking foreign access to strategic and political online resources – possibly not only by detecting the device’s so-called IP-addresses, but also its encryption system.
Foreign access to China’s internet is getting ever harder
A group of US lawyers, for example, complained in November 2022 that access to the website of China’s Supreme People’s Court was blocked from the US, Australia and several other countries. And regular foreign-based users of Chinese apps and websites more generally have recently become familiar with sentences like “at present, only mobile phone numbers in mainland China are supported for login”, “403 Forbidden - reason:GeoBL.”, or “our website is not available for use outside China mainland” appearing on the screens of their devices.
When foreign users are welcome, they must go through complex registration processes and are often required to provide their real names and information relating to their identity or that of others. On WeChat, for example, new users need to name at least two existing users to verify their application. Chinese regulators appear to have expanded their campaign of “obligatory real name registration, but voluntary username” to global users – with the aim of holding all users of its “clean and healthy cyberspace” accountable.
China’s internet platforms are helping to turn China’s Great Firewall from a barrier to internet content outside the country to one that can also stop outsiders getting in. Beijing’s system of control and surveillance to manage the internet sphere within China is as old as its tech companies – and not necessarily in their interests. The world’s most advanced censorship apparatus is forcing them to act as censors and gatekeepers and therefore transforming the walled gardens of the Chinese internet to become one fortified courtyard to those outside it.
This is a problem for millions of diaspora Chinese as well as thousands of global professional, academic, and social networks. Joining or staying on Chinese apps or even accessing websites exposes them to risks of state surveillance, privacy breaches, and fines or bans for acts deemed politically unwanted. Visitors of an online forum for critical diaspora networks have already been targeted. The New York Times reports some Chinese platforms display the IP-addresses of foreign users. “Chinese people posting from oversea […] are now easily targeted by nationalist influencers, whose fans harass them or report their accounts.”
The EU has to shift its focus from only reining in US tech
EU legislation offers no real protection. The recent Digital Services and Digital Markets Acts (DSA and DMA) are designed to deal with the monopolistic tendencies of US tech giants, not the virtual fortified courtyard being built in China. Brussels obviously needs to respond. Most notably, Chinese platforms accessible from Europe should only be allowed to require identification if a certain service requires it. Chinese companies’ real-name registration rules are in breach of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) if it is not necessary to deliver their services and warrant investigation.
Ironically, while China is driving fragmentation beyond its Great Firewall, it is becoming wary of fragmentation within it. The traditional multi-function so-called super-apps have established strong lock-in mechanisms like payments features and closed communication channels. Beijing has taken steps to ensure more interoperability, like making messaging between platforms easier. But a new form of technical fragmentation is looming in the form of different platform-exclusive programs, so-called mini programs and quick apps, available only in special appstores.
Fragmentation on both sides of the Great Firewall undermines Beijing’s vision for a global “community of common destiny in cyberspace”. Even though China is deterring foreign users and suffers technical fragmentation at home, the State Council emphasized recently that the country wants to promote openness and cooperation and create open, fair and non-discriminatory ecosystems. The future of the internet and China's role in shaping it remain uncertain. Crucial will be how it balances its need for control and interest in openness.
This analysis is one output of a larger project on China's role in shaping the future internet that was kindly supported by the German Foreign Ministry.