This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it weekdays.
China’s government commands the “Great Firewall,” an elaborate system of technology and people that blocks foreign websites, contorts online conversations and punishes people for straying.
I spoke with my colleague Paul Mozur, who has written for years about technology and politics in China, about what he called “firewalls great and small” by governments in Myanmar, Russia, Uganda and other countries that are to varying degrees also trying to control online activities.
Shira: Please first explain China’s system of internet control.
Paul: It’s a combination of blocking just about any foreign website you can think of and providing an information environment that reinforces what China’s government and the Chinese Communist Party say about the world.
The controls are comprehensive. A huge government bureaucracy monitors online activity, and an army of volunteers report content to be censored and help spread positive messages about government initiatives. Companies are tasked with pulling material off the internet, and engineering teams are dispatched to build artificial intelligence tools to help. Contractors provide the manpower for industrial scale censorship.
The newest phenomenon is the internet police, which detains or investigates people if they’re found to routinely do things like make fun of China’s leader, Xi Jinping, online or raise sensitive political topics.
Does the firewall work?
Yes. It comes at the cost of the government’s energy and money and the permanent anger of a segment of the population, but it’s extremely effective in shaping what many think.
Most people don’t have time to escape the information environment they live in, so it informs their outlook on the world — especially during crises. The online manipulation during the early coronavirus outbreak was probably the biggest censorship event in history.
How do other countries’ efforts to block some websites or control the internet compare with the Great Firewall?
Iran and North Korea also have nearly complete control over the internet, and Myanmar and Cambodia are potentially trying to do something similar.
But it’s difficult for any country to permanently block major social media sites and censor what people say online — as our colleague Anton Troianovski has reported from Russia. It risks angering citizens and isolating the economy, and the government risks missing its other priorities. It’s also difficult to stay on top of people’s attempts around the internet controls.
How has Myanmar tried to control people’s online activities?
When the coup started last month, the military used brute force tactics to simply blackout the internet temporarily. In some cases, they did it at gunpoint. Now they’re slowly cutting access.
Each morning, people wake up to find new websites they can’t access. For now, it has been fairly easy for people to get around those blocks. The worry is that new technology from China could make the blocks more complete, though we’ve seen no evidence to date of China’s involvement.
How do you explain that in Myanmar people have suffered from too little restraint of the internet and also too much? First, the military spread hatred online against the country’s Rohingya minority group, and now it’s cutting off the internet.
Where democratic institutions are weak and there are challenges over a country’s future, powerful actors will both cut off the flow of information when it suits them and deploy the internet to spread information in their interests. China does both, and so has Myanmar. Though it might seem contradictory, censorship and disinformation go hand in hand.
The fear is that China will make the technology and techniques of its internet manipulation system readily adaptable by other autocratic countries. Myanmar is important to watch because if the generals control the internet without decimating the economy, it may become a model for other authoritarian regimes.
Tip of the Week
Three cheap and helpful tech gadgets
Flying cars are great, but sometimes finding technology that tackles small problems can feel amazing. The New York Times personal tech columnist Brian X. Chen has three inexpensive tech helpers for us to try.
Sometimes the most useful technologies are cheap gizmos combined with human ingenuity. Here are three examples in the $15 to $30 range.
Bluetooth trackers like Tile ($25): These tiny tags are meant to be attached to things that you frequently misplace, like your house keys and wallet, so that you can use your phone to pinpoint them. But with a bit of imagination, Bluetooth trackers can do much more.
I attach a Tile to my obnoxiously thin Apple TV remote, which regularly disappears between couch cushions. I leave a Tile in my checked luggage to help me find it at the airport. And a friend who leaves a Tile in her car was able to track down the thieves who stole it and share that information with law enforcement.
We’ve written extensively about the dangers of allowing third parties to track our location, but privacy experts have not found major concerns with Tile’s practices.
MyQ smart garage door opener ($27): This hub, when installed next to your existing garage door opener and connected to a home internet network, lets anyone control the garage door with a phone app.
I’ve found this gizmo surprisingly useful. Once, when I wasn’t home, my neighbor locked himself out of our building, and I was able to let him in by using the app to remotely open the garage door. It’s also great that my wife and I don’t need separate remote controls when we pull our bicycles out of the garage for a ride.
Internet-connected plugs like TP-Link’s Kasa ($17): I use smart plugs to program a bunch of small tasks. I schedule a grow light for my homegrown vegetables to turn off after 16 hours and program an electric kettle to boil water first thing in the morning for coffee.
Before we go …
A middle ground on tech regulation may be possible: Kashmir Hill wrote about Massachusetts, where a civil liberties activist and elected officials struck a balance between banning facial recognition technology used by law enforcement and giving the police complete free rein.
The internet never forgets: Liat Kaplan, who wrote a formerly anonymous celebrity blog in the 2010s, has second thoughts about “vengeful public shaming masquerading as social criticism.” Related, from the internet culture writer Ryan Broderick: “We can’t control how much of our lives exist in near-permanence online, but we can learn to decide what’s worth dissecting and what’s not.”
Hugs to this
Sea turtles that had been rescued from the recent freezing weather in Texas were released back into the Gulf of Mexico. There was a sea turtle slide!
We want to hear from you. Tell us what you think of this newsletter and what else you’d like us to explore. You can reach us at email@example.com.
If you don’t already get this newsletter in your inbox, please sign up here.