Why are we copying Beijing? (ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images)

August 9, 2021   5 mins

Be honest — did you read UnHerd’s “cookie policy” just now, before you clicked “accept and close”? Have you ever read one of those notices? Or do you, like me, agree to anything and everything so long as you can get to the good stuff more quickly?

The reason these annoying little pop-ups exist at all is thanks to a recent-ish law which helps you understand what’s being collected about you online. It’s something that probably deserves a moment of your attention. But we’re spending more and more time online; who wants to waste it checking 20 tedious Ts&Cs a day?

The future of the internet will come down to tiny things like this: subtle decisions made at the engineering or regulatory level — stuff which most of us ignore because we can’t be bothered to find out what it’s all about. Are you curious about “digital object architecture”? Do you want to know who’s behind the “Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers”? A colleague of mine once spent weeks tracking this stuff — only to conclude that internet protocols are “simply too impenetrable and boring to feel angry about”. Nobody cares. Nobody, except the autocrats of the world, who are quietly trying to wrestle control over various working groups and technical decisions — to make sure they can tame the digital beast.

Given our abject dependency on it, it’s scary to think of the internet as a flimsy experiment. But it’s already changed shape several times over its short life: from a government-funded research project for military scientists, to an academic network, to a vehicle for e-commerce and now a platform for social content. Through it all one thing remained constant, in theory if not always in practice: the idea that the internet was a single open network which anyone could join, and where everything was connected via a standard set of protocols and rules.

According to a new book, that’s about to change. Four Internets argues that the era of a single internet might be drawing to a close, replaced by a balkanised network of different versions living alongside each other. Scholars Wendy Hall and Kieron O’Hara reckon four internets in particular are already taking shape.

The “Silicon Valley” model is open and libertarian — anyone can join the network, no single authority is in charge and there are few rules about what sort of information can be transported across the network. Its modus operandi is to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. This is the original vision and remains just about still on top.

The “Washington DC” version, by contrast, prioritises data collection and corporate interests. It doesn’t mind big tech firms collecting massive amounts of information on citizens, providing it generates profits and excellent products for consumers to enjoy.

Then there’s the “Brussels bourgeois” model which is “ordered, respectful, polite, decent, well-behaved, well- mannered, and considerate” (and also a little dull). Preferred by most EU countries, it is quick to launch anti-trust cases and punish companies that “move quickly and break things”. It is the Brussels vision that created “GDPR” privacy rules, the “right to be forgotten” and those damn cookie laws.

Finally, there is the fast-developing “Beijing” internet, which is paternalistic and tightly controlled by the government. Back in 2000, Bill Clinton told a Chinese trade delegation that cracking down on the internet would be like “trying to nail jello to the wall … good luck”. But over the last 20 years the Chinese government has gradually brought the internet to heel through its doctrine of “cyber-sovereignty”. They’ve done it slowly and cleverly: China’s “deep packet inspection” technology checks what’s coming in from the rest of the world; IP addresses they don’t approve of are turned away. All internet content providers are held liable for what appears on their websites, under an insidious “you yourself decide” code, which encourages everyone to turn into draconian self-censors to avoid trouble.

Where does the UK stand in all of this? It’s hard to imagine our government would have either the competence or the inclination to go as far as China’s, but what if the Beijing model is the future? In his recent book The Great Firewall of China, James Griffiths argues the Chinese model is starting to spread. Most visibly in Africa, where various governments are happy to buy up cheap, decent Chinese technology — and in some cases the surveillance or AI technology that can help them stay in charge. Although as some analysts have argued, it’s not always Beijing pushing the Beijing model — Western companies are also happy to assist snooping autocrats with cheque books. At home, Westminster is liable to fall for the allure of control. While we might not import Chinese technology itself — especially after the furore with Huawei and the 5G network — the promise of being in charge of the internet is irresistible.

And so, our internet is getting increasingly authoritarian. You may recall the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 (aka the “Snoopers Charter”), which, among other things, required internet companies to keep a record of the websites you visit for a year. Earlier this year it was revealed that the government was testing a creepy new tool as part of the Act — surveillance technology that could track and record everything that every single person in the country does on the internet. Funnily enough, the Chinese government cited the Snoopers Charters when defending their own draconian surveillance techniques.

There also seems to be a running game of cat and mouse between the police and campaign groups over the use of facial recognition technology. Last year the Court of Appeals deemed that South Wales Police’s use of live facial recognition technology was unlawful — a win for campaigners. But this year some forces started trialling retrospective facial recognition technology instead.

Then there’s the proposed Online Harm Bill, currently inching through Parliament, which aims to make companies more responsible for user safety on their platforms. It will force tech firms to take on a “duty of care” and remove “harmful content” while keeping up “democratically important” stuff. There’s certainly plenty of bad stuff online, but phrases like “duty of care” and “harmful content” are terrifyingly broad — and reminiscent of China’s “you yourself decide” code. If the British bill passes, it will invariably mean proactive and excessive censorship — with government setting the tone.

And it probably will pass, because the truth is the public seem to quite like the Beijing model, even if they wouldn’t call it that. According to a recent YouGov survey, 78% of us want users to disclose their real identity when signing up on social media — a petition about this hit almost 700,000 signatures recently. It’s easy to understand the instinct — this followed the controversy over racist attacks on England footballers after the team lost the European Championship final, much of which came from anonymous social media accounts. Labour MPs Margaret Hodge, Angela Rayner and Jess Philips have all argued that de-anonymising users will force them to be accountable for their actions.

If the goal is noble, the method is not. For one thing, it’s not clear that such a move would deal with the problem, given a decent chunk of online abuse comes from anonymous users overseas (should we ban them too? How?) Besides, cyber-disinhibition is also caused by the lack of face-to-face, immediate contact, which wouldn’t change — unless of course the government forced us to hand-deliver our tweets and posts in person to the recipient. And besides, after everything we know about Facebook, are we sure we really want to hand our passports or driving licenses over to Zuck? What of those who have good reason to stay anonymous online — the whistleblower, the undercover journalist, the teen in a self-help group?

Anonymity used to be seen as a benefit of online life: a chance to say what you really think, to safely explore new ideas and new identities. “On the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog,” went the famous New Yorker cartoon, and it wasn’t meant as an insult. Now Fido and Patch are a menace to society.

When you add this all up, it’s possible to see the UK drifting accidentally into its very own authoritarian internet. Not up to Beijing’s Olympian standards, perhaps, but where censorship in the name of harmony trumps all and where surveillance is built in to the rules and the tech.

As the internet becomes more embedded in our everyday life, that will take on an even more sinister meaning. Any minor infraction in our self-driving cars will result in a system override and an automatic locked-door ride to the nearest police station (“in the interests of pedestrian safety!”). Smart fridges will hector you about meat consumption levels and simply refuse to open if you’ve been recorded saying anything rude or offensive (“in the interests of the nation’s health!”). The internet will become a far more sanitised, controlled and monitored place than it already is — and by extension so will all of us.

is the author of The People Vs Tech (2018) & The Dark Net (2015)’.