April 2015 —
Recently, China has appeared to add yet another tool to its already extensive Internet censorship arsenal. The tool, which has been dubbed by Western media as the “Great Cannon”, has unique capabilities that provides China the ability to censor in ways that it has never been able to before. Its effectiveness was made evident in the attacks last month on two organizations that promote anti–censorship in China.
So how exactly does the Great Cannon work? Briefly speaking, it is an offensive censorship tool; it hijacks and re-directs traffic from unsuspecting web users to targeted servers, overwhelming these servers with traffic overload and thus taking them offline. This is known as a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack.
The emergence of the Great Cannon has several significant implications.
First, it marks a philosophical shift in China’s approach to censorship. Previously, many had viewed China as taking a largely passive approach to censorship. It used its Great Firewall to serve as mainly an inconvenience to its netizens; it was and is still not difficult for netizens to use various measures to bypass the Firewall, but China seemed content on counting on the fact that most netizens would be happy with the content within the Firewall, and thus not bother trying to venture outside of it. The Great Cannon though, as well as the previous crackdown on VPNs a few months ago, signals that China is moving towards a more offensive approach.
There are several possible reasons for this shift. One likely explanation is the changing political climate. Xi Jinping’s regime has been much more repressive than its predecessors, as they seem to be increasingly fearful that the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) grip over the country is weakening. Thus, political enemies have been eliminated, often under the guise of eliminating corruption, and activists have had their freedoms further suppressed. The Internet is viewed as another potential source of challenge to the CCP, which explains the new measures.
Second, the introduction of this new weapon adds further fuel to the long-running U.S.-China cyber feud regarding the nature of Internet governance. China sees the Internet as sovereign territory, to be regulated by their respective countries in ways that they see fit. Censorship tactics, like the Great Cannon, are thus justified. On the other hand, the U.S. and other Western nations support a multi-stakeholder approach, where government, civil society, the private sector, academia, and national and international organizations all play a part in governing the Internet. This decentralized model of governance promotes global internet openness.
It is quite clear that China’s support of Internet sovereignty is an intellectual veil that attempts to legitimize the CCP’s desire to quell potential sources of challenge to their rule over China. By trying to promote Internet sovereignty as a global model, they attempt to obscure their self-interested motivations.
China also tries to defend its actions by arguing that the U.S.’s NSA surveillance programs, which spy on citizens, organizations, and foreign governments, demonstrates that the Western nations are being hypocritical when they advocate for online openness. China often uses this argument to attempt to convince other nations to adopt their sovereignty model.
But while there is certainly much issue to be taken with NSA surveillance, it is nowhere near the nature of China’s censorship tactics. While the NSA’s QUANTUM program does have similar capabilities as the Great Cannon, its was intended to target terrorist activity — not to actively restrict information to the public.
There is concern that the NSA’s surveillance causes U.S. netizens and writers to self-censor, and that is also a very legitimate worry. But again, this problem does not compare to the extent of China’s censorship. China can try to point out the hypocrisies and inconsistencies of other nations, but it cannot get away from the fact that it is a far worse offender.