“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” ~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Let’s talk about Internet censorship.
Systemic abuse of power. Suppression of information. Electronic surveillance. The free districts of Hong Kong are surrounded by a shadowy digital wall of absolutism. The Internet is the latest battleground of the new Cold War.
Hong Kong is the most recent victim of Beijing’s newly implemented national security law, which allows increased censorship by China’s Great Firewall. In a nutshell, the Great Firewall of China is a vast, sophisticated technical and legal system. The technical architecture of China’s Internet is optimized for state surveillance, in contrast to the commercialized Internet which is optimized for corporate surveillance.
How does it work?
A variety of methods are used by Chinese authorities to restrict online access such as:
- Blocking access to specific IP addresses and preventing any connection to the destination server
- Spoofing DNS server requests thereby returning an incorrect website address
- URL filtering to block websites based on keywords and phrases
- AI-enabled content censorship
- Blocking traffic that resembles VPN connections
Throughout my career I’ve had the opportunity to travel to Asia a few times. In fact, part of my job in previous work roles was to ensure business networks and internet traffic were securely routed in a way that bypassed China’s cybersecurity controls. For most organizations, the only way to circumvent the digital barrier is through internet exchanges and proxies found in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong once had an open and robust internet that allowed for free markets and free minds. The growing fear is that critics of the Chinese Communist Party will be silenced in the name of national security. Law enforcement can now seize digital devices, block internet content, monitor citizens online, and fine and arrest those that are identified as political dissidents. Hundreds of protesters have already been arrested under the new law.
Prior to the national security law, China utilized the Great Cannon, an offensive DDoS tool, to launch cyberattacks against online forums used by Hong Kong residents to plan anti-Beijing demonstrations. Since the law has taken effect, China has exerted vast, draconian controls over online communication bringing personal freedom on the Internet to a grinding halt in the region. Hong Kong citizens have even resorted to purging social media accounts as free speech became a potential crime. This is the antithesis of freedom and democracy.
Is resistance futile?
Social media platforms, online publishers, internet service providers, and e-commerce will all suffer under the new national security rules. To what extent remains to be seen. The U.S. State Department has already halted exports of military equipment and high-tech products to Hong Kong due to fears that they will be used by mainland China. Additionally, U.S. tech companies such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, Microsoft, and Zoom have indicated they won’t comply with government requests for user data. Noncompliance by businesses operating in Hong Kong could lead to fines and network traffic being blocked. Whatever the outcome, one thing is clear: China is all-in over Hong Kong.
Hong Kong’s democratic values of freedom, equality, and justice are shared by all of us. The U.S. must lead and uphold these principles internationally, and we can strengthen that position by resolving civil rights abuses at home.
Hong Kong’s fight for freedom is the front line of a global battle against the growing tide of despotic governments. Censorship is about control. As China’s cyberbalkanization further enables surveillance and authoritarianism, protecting the freedom of expression and the right to privacy of users has never been more important. This is a fight for the future of the Internet. And the Internet should unite, not divide us.
Censorship avoidance will drive new technologies such as the decentralized web and blockchain networks. Just as the Mongols breached the Great Wall of China during the 13th century, outsiders will find new and innovative ways to evade Internet censorship systems designed to restrict them.