The Atlantic Magazine Calls for Chinese Style Internet Surveillance in the United States

Published May 6th, 2020 - 10:15 GMT
The Atlantic finally comes out /AFP
The Atlantic finally comes out /AFP

A recent article in The Atlantic titled ‘Internet Speech Will Never Go Back to Normal’ and written by Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard Law School professor, and Andrew Keane Woods, a professor at the University of Arizona, argues that greater state control over the internet in the US might be a good idea.

 

To quickly summarise their thesis, the authors argue that online content during the early two decades of the internet was generally free and openly accessible in the US. But, as the need to monitor online speech and expression became "inevitable," the the need for surveillance was given to private companies like Facebook and Google.

Goldsmith and Woods argue that “in the great debate of the past two decades about freedom versus control of the network, China was largely right and the United States was largely wrong. Significant monitoring and speech control are inevitable components of a mature and flourishing internet, and governments must play a large role in these practices to ensure that the internet is compatible with a society’s norms and values.”

Goldsmith and Woods argue that “in the great debate of the past two decades about freedom versus control of the network, China was largely right and the United States was largely wrong.

The entire debate has been, rather pleasingly, dubbed the COVID-1984 question by 21st-century surveillance writer, Shoshana Zuboff.

In China, most surveillance is state-driven. The Great Firewall of China is the popular term by which internet censorship in the communist state is known. Yet, the term can be quite misleading. The author James Griffiths explains in his insightful book called, happily, The Great Firewall of China, that:

“When a user in China tires to load a web page, their ISP pings a list of forbidden URL’s and types of content. If the page is not banned, the request is passed on to an internet access point that handles routing traffic to servers all over China and the world. It’s at this stage that packet inspection takes place, looking for keywords and suspicious flags. When the destination server sends the web page back to the user, it is inspected again. Only if it clears all these hurdles is the internet browser able to load anything.”


This is only the first stage of censorship. There is also another layer, internal to the Chinese state, which operates on certain apps. WeChat, like WhatsApp but capable of facilitating online banking, ticket purchases, food orders, and phone calls, is under the omnipotent eye of the Chinese state. People have gone to jail over what they have written on WeChat.

WeChat, like WhatsApp but capable of facilitating online banking, ticket purchases, food orders, and phone calls, is under the omnipotent eye of the Chinese state. People have gone to jail over what they have written on WeChat.

Algorithms work to immediately cut out keywords. When Xi Jinping changed the rules over term limits to allow himself the possibility of ruling for life, words like “accession,” “emperor,” and “don’t agree” would disappear from chats before the receiver could have a chance of seeing them. Chat streams would turn to nonsense as algorithms kicked in to delete banned words.

This is the model, in the words of Goldsmiths and Woods, that was “largely right” in the “debate of the past two decades about freedom versus control of the network.” In one essential way there are correct: the economy. The Chinese economy has achieved something which could go down as one of the greatest achievements of humanity: in the past 40 years more than 850 million have been “lifted out of poverty.” Despite the wording from the WHO, this is a profound and almost miraculous accomplishment.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) now sees the internet not as the threatening force it ones posed, but as another opportunity to grow the economy. Kai Strittmatter in his book We Have Been Harmonised: Life In China’s Surveillance State, details the CCP’s current attitude towards the internet:

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) now sees the internet not as the threatening force it ones posed, but as another opportunity to grow the economy.

“The regime has not only lost its fear; it has learned to love new technologies. The CCP believes it can use big data and artificial intelligence to create steering mechanisms that will catapult its economy into the future and make its apparatus crisis-proof. At the same time, it intends to create the most perfect surveillance state the world has ever seen.”

A crisis is what the CCP has found itself in. In response, the algorithms have been working overtime to keep up with the talk of the people. According to incomplete statistics, at least 23 news outlets have had over 41 articles either deleted or blocked. One of the articles was headlined: “Wuhan medical personnel: All isolation rooms are filled, and colleagues around us already infected.” After the news that human-to-human COVID-19 infection was possible was covered by news organizations, at least one article per day was deleted between 4 to 27 February and between 2 and 13 March.

One of the articles was headlined: “Wuhan medical personnel: All isolation rooms are filled, and colleagues around us already infected.”

Despite this, there is a well-documented admiration between Mark Zuckerberg and Xi Jinping. The policies of the US’ Big Tech companies are also starting to match this admiration, with slides over to surveillance and interference. Some of this has been done in collusion with the US government, other times in order to exploit populations of the world for profit.

As Goldsmith and Woods point out, “most of our online speech now occurs in closely monitored playpens where many tens of thousands of human censors review flagged content to ensure compliance with ever-lengthier and more detailed ‘community standards’ (or some equivalent). More and more, this human monitoring and censorship are supported—or replaced—by sophisticated computer algorithms.”

However, there is one huge difference between the US and the China model. If a user in the US wants to post something that has previously been taken through “community guidelines,” they have a good chance of being able to do so through another social media network or outlet.

In China users have been sent to jail for messages over WeChat /AFP


The user in the market economy is, in theory, allowed a degree of choice, unlike in the Chinese model where content is censored before it has appeared on any screen. But, as fewer companies provide for more of the market, the oligarchy of Big Tech will become more powerful. For example, over 90% of all internet searches are done through Google and its subsidiary YouTube. Furthermore, tech companies are diversifying to other markets, for example, Amazon is the world’s largest online retailer but also the world’s largest cloud service provider.

More market share means more control and, inevitably, less choice for internet users. The idea that if someone doesn’t like the censorship rules for one outlet, they can simply switch to another is a fallacy.

More market share means more control and, inevitably, less choice for internet users. The idea that if someone doesn’t like the censorship rules for one outlet, they can simply switch to another is a fallacy.

As companies become more powerful, they take greater liberties with our data. As the article in The Atlantic points out, many companies now collude with law enforcement agencies and governments in ways that extremely similar in spirit to the Chinese Social Credit Score, which is a digitally tracked reward-or-punishment scheme for Chinese citizens.

Goldsmith and Woods are wrong, however, on the inevitability of widespread and invasive digital surveillance: “The harms from digital speech will also continue to grow, as will speech controls on these networks. And invariably, government involvement will grow. At the moment, the private sector is making most of the important decisions, though often under government pressure.”

many companies now collude with law enforcement agencies and governments in ways that extremely similar in spirit to the Chinese Social Credit Score, which is a digitally tracked reward-or-punishment scheme for Chinese citizens

In this formulation, it is the tension between the government and the private companies which will form future policy on internet censorship. However, the most important people are being left out and having decisions made without their consent.

The users of internet services are the ones who should decide how much they are being watched, what data is collected, and how that data is used. Goldsmith and Woods have already given away the rights of the people to decide on their own futures.

Is it inevitable that greater surveillance will take place? Is it inevitable that companies will give law enforcement agencies access to speech-controlled devices to? Is it inevitable that all the decisions will be made without us being invited to the meeting? No. By organizing, noticing what is being done without our consent, and deciding on what we want, Big Tech and governments will not be the only ones shaping the future.
 

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.


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