Speaking before an elite audience in Washington in March 2000, then US President Bill Clinton summarized much of Western thinking on the internet when he hailed a new century in which “liberty will be spread by cell phone and cable modem.”

This would occur, Clinton said, despite the efforts of countries like China to fight the spread of information.

“Now there’s no question China has been trying to crack down on the internet,” Clinton said, his eyebrows arched as he neared the punchline. “Good luck! That’s sort of like trying to nail jello to the wall.”

In the decades since that speech, Clinton’s jello comment has become a something of a dark joke among internet freedom advocates, as China continued to build up the Great Firewall, the world’s most sophisticated system for controlling and surveilling the web.

A new report out this week shows that China is by far the most effective censor of the internet, and far from retreating, is exporting its model around the world.

Beijing has consistently defied all the confident predictions (including by people far more knowledgeable about the internet than Clinton) that this would be impossible. China’s censors have reigned in blogs, social media, and US search giants, and repeatedly defeated or stymied any attempts to undermine the Firewall, from virtual private networks (VPNs) to the dark web.

Sunday Yokubaitis, chief executive of VPN company Golden Frog, told CNN they have “witnessed a massive increase” in attempts to block their services in China.

“We used to see blocks roughly once every six weeks; they now try to block our service multiple times every day,” he said.

As I document in my book, “The Great Firewall of China: How to Build and Control an Alternative Version of the Internet,” Beijing’s model of the internet is now spreading beyond its borders, with China’s censors working actively with their counterparts in Russia, Uganda and a host of other countries to build up internet controls and crack down on online dissent.

A new report from Freedom House — a US government-funded NGO — supports this. During 2018, the authors found, “internet freedom declined for the eighth consecutive year.”

“A cohort of countries is moving toward digital authoritarianism by embracing the Chinese model of extensive censorship and automated surveillance systems,” Freedom House said.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a regular press conference Thursday that the report’s findings “are sheer fabrications.”

“They are unprofessional, irresponsible and made with ulterior motives,” Lu added.

Forlorn hope

During the early decades of the internet, many influential thinkers claimed the internet — by its very nature — would spread democracy and freedom of speech.

The combined forces of globalization and the web were, Thomas Friedman wrote in 2000, “acting like nutcrackers to open societies.”

But as writer Evgeny Morovoz has demonstrated, this assumption was often based on a willful misreading of the events of the Cold War, and the effectiveness of strategies like smuggling photocopiers and fax machines through the Iron Curtain and Radio Free Europe broadcasts.

“Viewing it through the prism of the Cold War, they endow the internet with nearly magical qualities; for them, it’s the ultimate cheat sheet that could help the West finally defeat its authoritarian adversaries,” Morozov writes. “In other words, let them tweet, and they will tweet their way to freedom. By this logic, authoritarianism becomes unsustainable once the barriers to the free flow of information are removed. If the Soviet Union couldn’t surprise a platoon of pamphleteers, how can China survive an army of bloggers?”

In fact, as the Freedom House report demonstrates, the internet is an excellent tool for social control, enabling surveillance and guiding of public opinion that would have been impossible in the past.

This has been further boosted by the ongoing panic in the US and other countries which have typically been the biggest proponents of internet freedom over fake news and alleged election interference online.

“Throughout (2018), authoritarians used claims of ‘fake news’ and data scandals as a pretext to move closer to the China,” the report said. “Governments in countries such as Egypt and Iran rewrote restrictive media laws to apply to social media users, jailed critics under measures designed to curb false news, and blocked foreign social media and communication services.”