The Chinese government spent 8 years and $700 million to build the Great Firewall, a system that monitors and censors Internet communication. As Wired recently noted, “virtually all internet contact between China and the rest of the worlds is routed through a very small number of fiber-optic cables that enter the country at only three points.” This coupled with Cisco technology enables the Chinese authorities to physically monitor all incoming and outgoing Internet traffic.
The Great Chinese Firewall is not designed to be invincible, however. In fact, one of the reasons why the Chinese government has to “allow some exceptions to its control efforts—even knowing that many Chinese citizens will exploit the resulting loopholes” is to “keep China in business” (Wired). For example, “many of China’s banks, foreign businesses and manufacturing companies, retailers, and software vendors rely on virtual private networks (VPNs) and proxy servers […] to survive” (The Atlantic). VPNs and proxy servers also “happen to be” two dependable alternatives to evading government censorship. “This is the one area in which China literally cannot afford to crack down. Foreign companies are the backbone of its export economy, and without VPNs they just couldn’t do their work” (Wired).
The same is true of other ICTs such as mobile phones and SMS text messages. More than 20 million SMS messages are sent every day in Iran alone. Furthermore, the Washington Post writes that,
“As each new technology has spread, the region’s authoritarian governments have tried to fight back. They have sent censors to license fax machines and block dissident Web sites, and they have pushed government-friendly investors to buy and manage satellite channels. But the Gulf’s monarchies have not yet figured out whether or how to control text message channels. If they do, they will sorely disappoint the region’s profit-engorged cell phone companies, whose stock prices have soared as phone and messaging use has exploded. About 55 percent of Kuwaitis and a third of Saudis now own cell phones, according to mobile service providers, and growth rates show no sign of slacking.”
There is increasing empirical evidence that economic growth is in part a function of greater access to global information flows (economics 2.0). However, authoritarian states that wish to exploit the economic possibilities of the information revolution will have to make increasingly difficult choices: “any state that permits Internet or cellular phone use for commercial possibilities will face difficulties in perfectly censoring undesirable communication or halting all attempts at political co- ordination” (Drezner 2006).
So the real question is not whether the repressive state is more technicaly savvy. No, the salient question is how much longer the coercive state can in fact afford to enforce control given the state’s growing dependency on the information economy? For example, The Atlantic writes that, “about 70 percent of Internet users in the United States have used the Web to shop. How will the proliferation of credit cards in China affect the government’s ability to monitor Internet activity?”
It’s easy to slip into technological determinism and focus entirely on James Bond super gadgets like the Great Chinese Firewall. But come on, it’s the Economy 2.0, you geeks!
Patrick Philippe Meier