“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”[1]

With these words Internet activist John Perry Barlow optimistically declared the independence of cyberspace in 1996. Twenty years down the line, the utopian view of the Internet as an unregulated democratic cyberspace where states have no influence and control seems hopelessly out-dated.

Ever since Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web in 1990, Internet scientists have debated the profound effects that the Internet would have on politics. With the rise of the Internet, the foundation was laid for an entirely new infrastructure of society. The Internet provided humans with a way to interconnect, regardless of location and time. Such a platform enabled them to organise themselves in entirely new ways. This led many scientists to believe that the Internet would have a democratizing effect on society.[2] Some of them predicted the demise of the nation state and forecasted that it would eventually be replaced by other entities that were deemed more suitable to fit the needs of a globalized society.[3] In short, it was believed that the rise of the Internet would erode state sovereignty or potentially even challenge the legitimacy of the state as the highest authority.


Many scientists believed that the Internet would have a democratizing effect on society.

However, throughout the past decades it has become clear that the Internet is not the enemy of the nation state, as John Perry Barlow claimed. On the contrary, it constitutes a powerful tool for states to exert more power and control over its citizens. Little is left of the Internet as a borderless democratic free state. Political scientists believe we are currently witnessing “the rise of a cybered Westphalian age”, referring to the 1648 treaty which divided state power into clear geographic boundaries, guaranteeing self-entitlement and non-interference.[4] To illustrate this, both China and the United States have recently defined cyberspace as the fifth domain of warfare, along with sea, land, air and space, that is to be protected against adversaries. In the United States, cyber threats are currently perceived as the number one strategic threat to the country’s domestic security, placing it above terrorism.[5]

The strategic importance of cyberspace to the nation state has led to numerous breaches of end-user privacy on the Internet by governments trying to control their citizens. Internet freedom is no longer self-evident and the Snowden revelations of 2013 have proven that security weighs much heavier than privacy in Liberal Western Democracies. As government agencies get smarter and more experienced, even VPN’s and TOR-networks no longer guarantee anonymity on the World Wide Web. Especially in oppressive states, far-reaching governmental control on the Internet is applied to try and regulate this new-found freedom of its citizens. One of the most extreme examples of governments controlling the Internet, is China.

The Great Firewall of China
“In China there is no such thing as privacy: [The government] knows everything about you,”[6] stated Yuan Chang, a Chinese blogger, describing how the Chinese authorities were engaging in mass-surveillance through the Internet. The Chinese government was one of the first to realize how much impact the Internet could make on state sovereignty and has implemented a broad range of legislation and many technical measures to secure itself against the potential influence of the Internet.

The Great Firewall, the world’s most advanced national firewall, enables the Chinese government to restrict specific content from entering the Chinese web domain.

In the late 1990s the Chinese authorities designed a system that would lead all international Internet traffic and data streams through funnels, better known as ‘gateways’, when entering the Chinese domestic web environment.[7] This construction lies at the base of what later became known as the Great Firewall of China and was designed to be able to control citizens’ access to forbidden websites and censored information from abroad.[8] Since the erection of the firewall, the system has continuously been improved. While at first it was blocking entire lists of URLs, the system now searches for keywords and only blocks certain forbidden pages within websites, making it the most advanced national firewall in the world enabling the Chinese government to restrict specific content from entering the Chinese web domain.[9]


In China there is no such thing as privacy

According to a Human Rights Watch report, the decision of what content should be censored by these filters is made by the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department on advice of government and public security organs.[10] In the end it is their decision to block websites like Facebook and BBC and to webpages that feature words like “Tibetan independence” and “human rights”.[11] According to the American based human rights organisation Freedom House, tens of thousands of websites are blocked by the IAPs, with one of the latest developments being the complete block of Google’s website and services.[12]

Mass surveillance
In 2000 the Chinese government launched Operation Golden Shield, a project that had been developed in the 90’s by the Ministry of Public Security (MPS). The operation was set up to control the content of the Internet, while at the same time opening up to ICT and Western innovations. But operation Golden Shield went even further, it was supposed to become an all-encompassing surveillance project that would make use of modern ICT techniques to combine data on citizens. Greg Walton writes that the ultimate aim of the MPS was “the adoption of advanced information and communication technology to strengthen central police control, responsiveness, and crime combating capacity” and that Beijing envisioned “a database driven remote surveillance system – offering immediate access to registration records on every citizen in China, while linking to vast networks of camera’s […]”[13]

In the end, the rapid expansion of Chinese Internet usage led to the MPS having to adjust the operation, placing more focus on censorship than surveillance, but the idea to use ICT to create a mass surveillance system lived on.[14] Recently, the focus on online surveillance programs has been restored. The Chinese government has started a pilot to set-up a social crediting system that makes use of online payment systems to judge citizens on their creditworthiness and trustworthiness.[15] Apart from approving government credit services, this system supplies the government with an infrastructure that would enable it to control its citizens by “rating” them based on their (online) behaviour, their consumer habits, and their social network.[16]


Fighting anonymity on the web

While the Great Firewall heavily restricts the access of Chinese citizens to foreign information, there are ways to circumvent the measures taken by the Chinese authorities in order to access forbidden websites. The most common way is the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). When using a VPN a computer takes on the IP-address of the VPN, tricking ISPs content filters to believe it is located somewhere else. In the early 2000s, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences conducted a survey that showed that at least 10% of the Internet users in China regularly used a proxy server to circumvent censorship.[17]

However, most VPNs in China are slow and unstable and to be able to use them you need some extent of technical knowledge.[18] The Chinese government never paid much attention to blocking VPNs until an online attack in 2015 that disrupted the three largest providers of VPN services. The Chinese government later acknowledged responsibility, claiming that the attack was part of an upgrade of the Great Firewall of China.[19] Although the access to the VPNs has been restored since, it shows the lengths through which Xi will go to regulate the Internet. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that he will shut down all VPNs as this will eventually harm international business. To support the economy he will need to leave the door to the Internet of the rest of the world ajar, resulting in some extent of “Collateral Freedom” on the Internet.[20]


at least 10% of the Internet users in China regularly uses a proxy server to circumvent censorship.

Apart from VPNs, Chinese citizens make use of proxy servers and The Onion Router. TOR is software that creates a random path through cyberspace, making several stops on different servers before reaching its destination. When it makes a stop on a server it forgets the previous destination, making it impossible to link back the data flow to its origins. According to a Human Rights Watch Report from 2006, tens of thousands of Chinese citizens were making use of TOR on a weekly basis. The report states that they lack an explanation for the reason that China has not been blocking proxy nodes used by TOR.[21] However, a more recent article in The New York Times revealed that the authorities have found a way to discourage the use of TOR. Reportedly, hackers that were employed by the Chinese government succeeded in finding users of TOR by comparing the IP-address of people who were accessing compromised websites with IP-adresses of people who were logged on to one of the fifteen major Chinese Internet portals.[22] The result is that even use of this deeper layer of the Internet is no longer a safeguard of anonymity for Chinese Internet users.

Network control as a global trend
The initial concept of cyberspace lacked borders and its very nature was perceived to dictate openness and facilitation of information exchange. Therefore, many scientists believed that the Internet would help spread liberal values across the world and would erode traditional borders and authority structures. Not only authoritarian states like China, but also liberal democracies, have demonstrated that they are capable of erecting borders and control mechanisms in order to protect their state sovereignty against the rise of the Internet.

states have reclaimed their power in the fifth domain

Although China recognized the potential threat of the Internet to its state sovereignty as soon as it was connected to the Internet, in 1994, other countries have followed suit. Even the U.S., known for its liberal values, has implemented far reaching measures to control the Internet by implementing controversial privacy laws and legislation, executing mass online surveillance programs and taking measures to secure its own federal networks with the Einstein program.

Despite the Internet founders’ high expectations that it would provide citizens with an alternative power structure that freed individual users from state control, states have reclaimed their power in the fifth domain and even use the Internet to bolster their sovereignty.


Authoritarian states as well as liberal democracies, have demonstrated that they are capable of protecting their state sovereignty against the rise of the Internet.

Edward Snowden once said, ‘Even if you are not doing anything wrong, you are being watched and recorded.’[23] In fact, intelligence agencies might be recording your browsing behaviour at this very moment, while you are reading this article.

* Tense music starts playing *
Redactie: Jules Swinkels


[1] https://www.eff.org/cyberspace-independence

[2] P. Ferdinand, ‘The Internet, democracy and democratization’, Democratization 7 (2000) 1, 1-17, 2.

[3] J. Lea and K. Stenson, ‘Security, Sovereignty and Non-State Governance “From Below”’, Canadian Journal of Law and Society 22 (2007) 2, 9-27, 9.

[4] Demchak and Dombrowski, ‘Rise of a Cybered Westphalian Age’, 32.

[5] The Department of Defense, ‘The DoD Cyber Strategy’, 9.

[6] RNW Media, “Bloggers Open Borders for the Media” (Version: 14 January 2016) https://www.rnw.org/articles/bloggers-open-borders-for-the-media (22 January 2016).

[7] Walton, China’s golden shield, 9.

[8] Tsui, ‘The Panopticon as the Antithesis of a Space of Freedom’, 68.

[9] The Economist, ‘The great Firewall: The Art of Concealment’

[10] Human Rights Watch, ‘How Censorship Works in China’.

[11] Open Net Initiative,  ‘China profile’, (Version: 09 August 2012) https://opennet.net/research/profiles/china-including-hong-kong287 (05 January 2016).

[12] ‘Freedom on the Net 2015: China’, Freedom House, 2.

[13] Walton, China’s golden shield, 15.

[14] P. Punyakumpol, “The great Firewall of China: Background” Torfox: A Stanford Project (Version: 01 June 2011) http://cs.stanford.edu/people/eroberts/cs181/projects/2010-11/FreedomOfInformationChina/author/pingp/index.html (27 December 2015).

[15] C. Hatton, ‘China ‘Social Credit’; Beijing sets up huge system’ BBC News (Version: 26 October 2015) http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-34592186 (24 December 2015).

[16] J. Fan, ‘How China wants to Rate its Citizens’ The New Yorker (03 November 2015) http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/how-china-wants-to-rate-its-citizens (24 December 2015).

[17] Walton, China’s golden shield, (page no. unkown).

[18] Svensson, “Internet in China and its Challenges for Europe’, 5.

[19] S. Yuen, ‘Becoming a Cyber Power: China’s Cyber Security Upgrade and its Consequences’, China perspectives 2 (2015) 53-58, 53.

[20] Svensson, “Internet in China and its Challenges for Europe’, 5.

[21] Human Rights Watch, ‘How Censorship Works in China’.

[22] N. Pelroth, ‘Chinese Hackers Circumvent Popular Web Privacy Tools’, The New York Times, 12 June 2015.

[23] https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/e/edward_snowden.html

Annabelle Poelert

Annabelle Poelert

Annabelle Poelert rondde in 2016 haar master Politieke Geschiedenis en Internationale Betrekkingen aan de Universiteit Utrecht af. Dit artikel is gebaseerd op haar afstudeeronderzoek, waarin zij de invloed van de opkomst van het Internet op de staatssoevereiniteit van China en de Verenigde Staten onderzocht. Inmiddels werkt Annabelle voor Akvo, een stichting die software tools maakt en organisaties die actief zijn in de ontwikkelingssector ondersteunt bij het verzamelen, analyseren en delen van data.