No Chinese walls on the internet

China is fighting the web's inherent openness. It can't win — and that has profound implications for business

Fifteen years ago, digital activist John Gilmore said: "The net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it." It's a principle that's been extensively tested ever since.

One of the biggest tests is taking place right now in China. A country that wants to be seen as modern, trustworthy and connected is employing many thousands of people and vast amounts of technology to prevent its population from reading and writing what they like on the net. In so doing, it underlines the truth of Gilmore's maxim: China may have a massive secret-police machine and an iron grip on its public connectivity, but the details of what it's doing are known, and will continue to be known. A whitewashed window in a house of glass is a powerful statement — and a hopeless wish.

It is good to remind ourselves of the basic law of the internet that lies behind this: any system capable of delivering bits from one node to another across a complex network doesn't just encourage openness — it enforces it. That lies behind the continual failure of DRM, of legal and political efforts to curtail open source, of walled gardens and national barriers alike. How many clues do you need?

Whether you are a Chinese politician trying to keep the lid on corruption or a chief information officer concerned with information flow within a company, that realisation has profound implications. You can fight it. That's the instinctive reaction. But that fight will consume as much energy as you can muster, with no guarantee that what works today will be worth a farthing tomorrow.

Wisdom dictates a different approach. Worlds do change, and new environments demand adaptation instead of denial. Information design in the new age isn't about how to keep things secret, but how to have as few things secret as possible. We know that such a radical approach can work and work well; it is increasingly obvious that those who embrace such a philosophy will be best equipped to prosper in the years ahead. That will be a hard path, but there is no other — and the time to start the change in thinking is now. As China told the world hundreds of years ago: a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.


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