THE DIGITAL revolution is still unfolding, disrupting, intruding — and being suffocated. Around the globe, societies are being transformed by the fastest and most comprehensive means of sharing information mankind has ever known. For many people, including in the United States, it seems a never-ending race to the top, an astounding surge of innovation and progress. But there are downsides, too.
One is that, despite its liberating qualities, the Internet is not free everywhere, and not for everyone. The authoritarian behemoths of China and Russia, as well as others, have made strenuous efforts to build what they call digital “sovereignty.” This usually means a kind of censorship in which information is placed behind a fence erected by the state. Tyrants are still fighting desperately to control digital information much as they did in the analog era, rather than letting it flow freely across borders and time zones.
China has outdone almost everyone else, building a barrier known as the Great Firewall, a vast mechanism of censorship and Internet filtering that prevents many Chinese from using Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter. For a long time, China seemed to tolerate the relatively small number of people who could drill through the Great Firewall with the use of virtual private networks, or VPNs. Now comes word that China has invented new means of control and has started to shut down the most popular VPNs, cutting off more people from freedom to surf the outside world. This is the reality of digital sovereignty. It aims to curtail freedom, and it is driven by fears that more openness might lead people to question the leadership of the Communist Party and its stranglehold on power.
Interestingly, complaints are arising from inside China, where smart, savvy users who relied on VPNs are gasping for air. The New York Times quoted a number of users who found their work crimped, such as Zhang Qian, a naval historian who could no longer search Google Scholar, the trove of academic papers. “It’s like we’re living in the Middle Ages,” he lamented on a Chinese micro-blogging service. That’s the point. By further cutting itself off from the digital revolution, China is creating a kind of sovereignty that will only isolate itself.
Some modest efforts have been made in the United States to fund and propagate software in China that would circumvent the Great Firewall. China vehemently objects to this undertaking. We think circumvention software is a good idea and deserves more support from Congress. While China tries to control what its own people can learn, it is also working hard — through visa denials, harassment of reporters’ relatives and many other means — to prevent the outside world from receiving an accurate picture of life in China. It’s a frightening, damaging combination.