As more of the world’s sensitive activities and information travel through the wires of the internet, vulnerability to distant hackers is unavoidable. China can’t be blamed for feeling especially susceptible as an emerging power with the world’s highest internet population. But over the past few years, an interesting countermeasure has been discussed from time to time in the Middle Kingdom: Building an independent Chinese internet.
A June 21st Global Times article said, “90 percent of people believe China should strengthen its cyber defenses and build its own internet system.” This was based on a phone/online survey by the Global Poll Center affiliated with Global Times.
Wording and/or sampling bias probably played a role in that unusually high 90 percent figure, but we’ll assume that a significant number of Chinese do think an independent internet is a good idea. Iljitsch van Beijnum, research assistant at Institute IMDEA Networks who’s written two books about protocols underlying the internet, helped explain some of the implications of this idea.
He said there are basically two kinds of cyber attacks: those that depend on a volume of hackers and those that can be done individually. An independent internet would do little to stop the latter. “Simply using a CIA operative in a Beijing internet café” would do the trick according to Beijnum. “Or of course by paying someone in China to inject a worm.”
Large volume cyber attacks are a different story though. One famous international example was in 2007 when the nation of Estonia removed a Soviet war memorial, which enraged Russians. A wave of cyber attacks subsequently hit Estonia disabling the websites of government ministries and a number of other industries. Recently, similar hacks between China and Vietnam have seen nationalistic images and phrases posted on government websites of both sides because of the South China Sea territorial dispute.
These attacks could indeed be prevented with independent internets. So in this sense, it is a viable solution for cyber warfare. But it would basically be killing cockroaches with dynamite.
Setting up the network infrastructure of an independent internet would be easy enough technically because, in a nutshell, it would only require leaving out the international connections. But this would immediately cause some practical problems.
There will always be systems that need to connect to both the independent network and the global internet. The Domain Name System (DNS), which translates IP addresses into domain names, needs to have a foot in the international web to function in its present form. Some kind of a bridge linking the systems should be possible, but even if that was worked out, there would be bigger problems.
“What about all these factories that need to talk to their foreign customers?” Beijnum said. “Universities that want to publish papers? What about Hong Kong? Would it also be cut off? Or would Hong Kong connect to both the independent and the open networks? What about Chinese people abroad? Will there be a way for them to talk to family and friends?”
If Chinese internet users had foreign software like Windows, they couldn’t receive updates on it. Anything outside China’s borders would become inaccessible which would have serious economic and communication consequences, effectively killing the internet as China knows it.
Similar proposals have been made in Iran and Russia, but they face the same practical problems, which is probably why they haven’t gotten off the ground. While cyber security may be a legitimate concern, if the Chinese people were to actually experience being cut off from the international internet, it wouldn’t take long for that 90 percent support to plummet.
Whether or not this is something the Chinese government is seriously considering is anyone’s guess. I contacted the reporter who wrote the Global Times article and she didn’t know why the survey was done or any other information beyond what she wrote. I was also assured by a different Chinese reporter friend that if this was indeed something under consideration, everyone involved on both the government and technical sides would be sworn to secrecy until some kind of an official announcement was made. But the fact that the poll was carried out shows some people are thinking about it, and it’s hard to imagine the government hasn’t entertained the idea.
Now, I’m sure this hasn’t even crossed their minds, and it may hardly be worth mentioning, but there is another implication of an independent internet.
“It would certainly make life for censors easier as they don’t have to block sites on a case-by-case basis now that everything is blocked,” Beijnum said.
But using national security concerns as a cover for enhancing censorship capabilities in this way would be a desperate act by a paranoid regime, and downright dishonest. Fortunately, that would never happen in China.