In a dingy, decrepit apartment in the Ditang residential district in Guangzhou, China, Xioachun Wang watches his favorite YouTube videos, while updating his Facebook profile. Like millions of other Chinese netizens, Wang is using a Virtual Private Network or VPN to circumvent the formidable Great Firewall of China (hint: it’s not made of concrete or steel) to access the web which the rest of the world takes for granted — the free and open web (at least for the most part in Western liberal democracies). But Wang is paranoid. While he wants desperately to get his YouTube fix — there are entire channels devoted to criticizing and condemning the Chinese government, with millions of subscribers — a recent crackdown by Beijing has Chinese netizens, used to passing through the Great Firewall of China at will are now starting to worry when that ease of passage will end.
Recently, one Wang’s fellow residents of Guangdong province, Yunfeng Zhu, was fined 1,000 yuan (US$145) — an amount equivalent to 20% of a Guangdong resident’s monthly wage. But Zhu’s case is not unique, nor is it likely to be the last. Slowing growth in China has prompted a move by Beijing to tighten the noose around where Chinese citizens gain access to information and part of that has been a concerted effort to strengthen the Great Firewall of China. Beijing has been cracking down on VPNs, used not just by Chinese citizens, but by foreign companies, to access the free web and to access websites such as Google and Twitter. For as long as China has had a public security law (introduced in 1997) to restrict access to foreign websites, VPNs have existed and the Chinese have been using these services. And for the longest time, Beijing either did not have the capability to crack down on VPNs, nor did it have the desire to do so, as many of the digital educational resources still resided on websites the Chinese government deemed to be contrary to “Chinese communist and socialist values.” But as Chinese tech companies developed their own equivalents to Google (Baidu) and Twitter (Weibo), China also improved on its capability to actively manage its web censorship, with VPN being the last piece in the puzzle. According to Chinese state media, Zhu had used the popular VPN app, Lantern, to access foreign websites, without mentioning what sites he was trying to access. The move is disconcerting to say the least. So far, Beijing has cracked down primarily on what it deems are subversives and subversive forces or ideologies considered contrary to the Chinese Communist Party, but now it seems quite happy to punish its citizens simply for attempting to access the free web.
In 2017, Beijing introduced new regulations which only allowed government-approved operators to provide VPN services. So why not just ban VPN altogether? The answer is not so simple. To begin with, VPNs can be purchased and accessed from around the world, with many of the world’s most popular VPNs residing in some of the most free and democratic countries such as Iceland. Also, VPNs do serve other purposes as well, such as masking one’s IP address and making it harder for hackers to steal your personal data. Beijing also recognized that businesses and universities still needed access to the free web to access educational resources and to conduct business (Chinese sellers are one of the largest groups on both Amazon and eBay). Which is why instead of banning VPNs outright, China limited access to such services to government-sanctioned operators, meaning that Beijing could still monitor where its citizens were going to online. But while metropolitan residents in China’s eastern seaboard urban centers can still gain access to VPN services, in China’s western region of Xinjiang, VPNs are all but completely banned and those caught using the software can be subject to detention or euphemistically referred to “re-education” camps. And while domestic analysts have observed that arrests would “probably” be made to punish online political activities that the Chinese government deems as being “subversive” or against the interest of the Chinese people as opposed to solely for the use of VPNs, the recent arrests in Guangdong province challenge that assumption. Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu writes in the Art of War,
“Kill one, frighten ten thousand.”
There is also a famous Chinese idiom which goes,
Literally translated, the phrase means, “kill one to shock a hundred.” The idea from these Chinese “truisms” is to make an example of one, to instill fear in the masses — and the recent crackdown on VPN users may be specifically intended for that purpose.
The Web Was Supposed to Represent Freedom
But the World Wide Web was never intended to turn out this way. When Sir Timothy John Berners-Lee, a British engineer and computer scientist, invented the World Wide Web, his intention was to create a free and open space, where censorship would not be possible, for the free exchange of ideas and to allow people from all over the world to explore it together. But technology and censorship has caught up and far from the democratic flow of information and ideas, in many countries access to the web is far from free, susceptible to privacy breaches and subject to surveillance from both government agencies as well as hackers.
Today’s web traffic exists on a few, highly centralized servers such as Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure Cloud and is routed through a handful of sites such as Google and Facebook. All of these companies wield tremendous power over what we see, what we hear, what we read and like it or not, ultimately what we think and feel.
But the latest crackdown on VPNs in China may have intended consequences.
Blockhain as the Building Blocks for the Decentralized Web
The Chinese are an enterprising people and when faced with restrictions have long developed workarounds. Chinese adaptability and innovation are the product of Mao Zedong’s devastating Cultural Revolution, where millions of Chinese perished at the hands of ill thought-out economic policies. Even during the ravages of that era, plucky Chinese entrepreneurs ran black markets to ensure that people were still able to get access to the necessities such as sugar, rice and tea. And it is this spirit of survival, amidst the crackdown on access to the web that may push Chinese in an entirely different direction — the decentralized web.
A decentralized web would be one that would move away from the centralized cloud servers which currently dish up a quarter of all online traffic from Netflix (Amazon Web Services). Instead, it would rely on a network of many computers, worldwide distributing data, with each computer acting as a “node” and if this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the foundation upon which the Bitcoin blockchain works. Each computer in the decentralized web contributes power and memory to a distributed storage network system. The beauty of this system is that because data is not stored in any one privately-owned silo, which means that there is no central point of weakness for hackers to exploit and no way for an oligarchy of entities to take control over it or censor it for that matter.
On blockchain networks, data storage — similar to way torrents work (think Napster — ask your Grandpa) — is distributed across nodes in the blockchain and would in theory be resistant to tampering, censorship and manipulation, exploiting all of the benefits of the blockchain, a decentralized immutable ledger. But, and this is a rather big “but,” there are myriad technical difficulties preventing the development of a blockchain-based decentralized web. For starters, different blockchains struggle to communicate with each other or share data. Things which most developers take for granted such as APIs and API documentation simply don’t exist yet for decentralized blockchain applications, given their relative infancy. Interoperability continues to be a major issue, with each of the blockchain protocols developed in different programming languages, with their own unique set of governance rules. There are many blockchain companies working now to solve that problem, but it will take time. Then there’s the issue of scale. Countless blockchain detractors lament the glacial speed and volume of transactions that even the most advanced blockchain protocols are hamstrung by. Imagine the number of transactions that would need to be supported if the world moved across to a decentralized web? The number of search queries — each of which would represent one transaction on the blockchain. Today, no single blockchain is powerful or independent enough to serve as the base of the entire web. The decentralized blockchain-based web, or Web 3.0 if you will, is still very much a works in progress.
But the Chinese experience of censorship may be precisely the push needed to galvanize efforts by China’s best and brightest, educated in some of the finest Western centers of computing excellence, from Stanford to Harvard and everything in between, to work together to develop the tools necessary to build the foundation for a blockchain-based decentralized web. Because if history is anything to go by, the harder the Chinese people are pressed, the more they will find a way around. As the saying goes,
“The easiest way to get beyond a wall is not to try to go through it, but to walk around it.”
Nowhere is this more relevant when it comes to censorship of the web.