The 2016 Digital Activism Fellow GreatFire is a collective of anonymous individuals using technology to combat China’s draconian internet censorship regime. Charlie Smith answers questions about recent developments of China’s Great Firewall.
Index: The Chinese government warned in December that its controls on the internet are necessary to prevent foreign powers from “destabilising the state”. Would Great Fire be considered to be associated with such powers? What would be the consequences of this?
Smith: I don’t think the Chinese authorities fully understand how the internet works. They have this great image in their mind of creating “cyber sovereignty” but this is an impossible task. The internet by nature is international. Information is exchanged across borders. So, yes, foreign powers are destabilising China’s internet every minute. In the opinion of the Chinese authorities, I guess this happens every time somebody says “Xi Jinping is a totalitarian despot” or shares a photo of the great leader with his pants too high.
But even if the authorities were able to establish what they think is “cyber sovereignty”, they would quickly find that many Chinese also like saying nasty things about Xi Dada.
Index: Why do you think the latest crackdown on VPNs, requiring government registration for all VPNs based in China, is not as serious as it has been made out to be? Do you think it will make any difference to the way circumvention tools operate?
Smith: It is normal that the authorities ask that telecoms companies check to see who is using their services. There are a lot of cheap domestic VPN providers – some of whom probably do not have the interests of Chinese consumers at heart. It’s a good thing if they go out of business. Consumers will choose other solutions – other circumvention tools, foreign VPNs – and in the process learn more about how circumvention works in China. Educating the market at this stage will be very very valuable.
I think this is also one of the first times that the authorities have said that VPNs serve a purpose. If they continue with this line of messaging, they are actually saying that using a VPN is legal, not illegal. Companies are the main drivers here. If companies have problems accessing the resources that they need to run their businesses, the government will hear about it.