Whether in his wisdom or naivety, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, the leader of the Indian National Congress in the Lok Sabha yesterday demanded that an impregnable firewall be created to “resist this new menacing syndrome” and “Digital Chinese aggression”. The syndrome that Mr. Chowdhury talked about is a story reported by the Indian Express, as per which a Chinese company called Zhenhua has created profiles of around 10,000 Indian citizens, including the Prime Minister, the President, key media persons, top tech honchos, and others, based on their public activities on social media.
The Great Chinese Firewall is a tool of disproportionate censorship and surveillance, a violation of citizens’ fundamental right to free speech and privacy, and is undemocratic. It is the tool of totalitarian regimes.
Our politicians would do well to study how the very Great Chinese Firewall actually works. It is not as much a tool for protecting Chinese citizens from cyberattacks or surveillance, as it is a virtual prison.
- The Firewall is a tool of censorship: The Firewall is meant to keep ideas out, and keeping citizens from exploring views that may differ from what the Chinese Communist Party wants. Importantly, it is also used to censor citizens and their criticism of the Chinese Communist Party. For example, images of the character Winnie the Pooh are banned and censored by online censors, because it was used by citizens to mock the Chinese Premier Xi Jinping.
- The Firewall is a tool of surveillance: In order to know what to censor, one needs to monitor everything. Thus, the Firewall is also a system of mass surveillance, where users are constantly surveilled for how they use the Internet. A reporters WeChat account was recently shut down, within 45 seconds of her setting up a password on the messaging service, which abused the Chinese Communist Party. Even passwords are surveilled. In 2018, the Supreme Court said about the I&B Ministry’s social media monitoring tender, that “It will be like creating a surveillance state.”
While the intent of Mr. Chowdhury’s recommendation may have been benign – to protect Indians from Chinese surveillance and aggression – it is important to note that tools such as firewalls are always opaque, not open to public scrutiny and extremely hard to monitor. Such tools, once implemented, tend to expand in their scope to become a virtual prison.
An implementation of a firewall that is even more extreme than the one in China, is what India had implemented in the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir earlier this year: it was designed to censor access to the entire Internet, apart from a few white-listed websites. Just as the firewall in Kashmir cuts Kashmiris off from the rest of the world, and indeed, the rest of India, a firewall for the whole of India could end up cutting us off from the rest of the world.
The Internet is a democratising force, allowing individuals to explore new perspectives and ideas, engage with the others, and question their own beliefs. It allows them to express their views to others in other parts of the world. The internationalism that the Internet brings run counter to the nationalism that is currently raging through many a country, even if it also used to push nationalism. Openness is as core to the Internet as it is to democracy.
As the worlds largest democracy, it is in India’s interest to use the openness and the democratic nature of the Internet to build bridges with the rest of the world, not destroy them because of the fear of the actions of a totalitarian neighbour.
One can only hope that Mr. Chowdhury was speaking out of naivety, and changes his views. In any case, India’s IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad would do well to oppose such an idea.
***Correction (September 19, 10:50 PM): The article misspelled Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury’s name as “Choudhary” in a few instances. The error is regretted. Originally published on September 17.