Not so long ago, techno-utopians and mainstream politicians agreed that trying to censor the Internet was essentially impossible.
“The ‘Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it,” Electronic Frontier Foundation founder John Gilmore famously said.
And even former President Bill Clinton compared trying to control the Internet to “nailing Jell-O to the wall,” according to Adam Segal, director of the digital and cyberspace policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
But, Segal argues in his new book The Hacked World Order: How Nations Fight, Trade, Maneuver, and Manipulate in the Digital Age, that locking down the web has proven much easier than anticipated for authoritarian regimes like those in China, Russia, and North Korea.
“I think the assumption would be if we got the right technology in the right hands, old bureaucracy and powerful organizations couldn’t keep up,” Segal told Fast Company. “What we’ve found is they brought significant resources to the table and they were able to structure their Internet in ways that significantly restrict online freedom.”
China’s government, in particular, realized early on that the Internet was both vital to the country’s economic growth–and a threat to the stability of the Communist regime, he says.
“They always kind of looked at it as a double-edged sword,” says Segal, who is also CFR’s Maurice R. Greenberg senior fellow for China studies.
And they successfully took a three-pronged approach, implementing the technological filters collectively known as the Great Firewall, giving Internet providers and web hosts a powerful incentive to censor content by holding them liable for their users’ posts and by simply introducing uncertainty about what’s allowed online, leading everyday users to censor themselves, Segal argues.
Legal uncertainty has also helped curtail potentially seditious posts even in countries like Russia with less stringent technological controls, he says.
“Once you actually instill a bit of uncertainty in users, they begin to self-censor,” Segal says.
There’s still a bit of an ongoing cat-and-mouse game: “Even in China, there’s still a lot of ways to get things around the censors,” he says, like using homophones of banned words and phrases to evade filtering until censors catch up.
Chinese Internet freedom activists have famously posted references to a mythical animal called the “grass mud horse,” a name that forms an obscene pun in Chinese, and its conflicts with “river crabs,” whose name evokes the Chinese censorship regime.
And Western governments including the U.S. have promoted anonymity tools like Tor—sometimes even as other arms of the same governments warn they could be used by domestic criminals—and pushed Internet freedom through softer means, Segal says.
“I think there’s been a lot of work with civil society [groups] in other countries so they can make that argument in their own society,” he says. “We can try to make the economic argument that it’s in the countries’ own interest to keep the Internet open.”
But ultimately, the future Internet is more likely to look like the fragmented network of today than the freewheeling system predicted in the ‘90s, Segal predicts.
“I just think a lot of people really thought about the implications of technology but didn’t really think about how all of these things are still rooted in a place and [there’s still] a jurisdiction and sovereignty over them,” he says. “Companies still had people that could be arrested, and users still could be arrested.”