Time to dump the “Great Firewall” metaphor

This morning’s Observer column — about a new way of looking at the way the Chinese government deals with the Net.

We need different imagery to communicate the essence of this more sophisticated approach. Rebecca MacKinnon, one of the world’s leading experts on “networked authoritarianism”, suggests that a Chinese scholar, Li Yonggang of the University of Hong Kong, has come up with a better metaphor: the internet as waterworks. He thinks that the regime’s efforts to deal with the internet can be best described as a hydraulic project. Water, in this view, is both vital and dangerous: it has to be managed.

In a blogpost about this approach, MacKinnon wrote: “If you approach internet management in this way, the system has two main roles: managing water flows and distribution so that everybody who needs some gets some, and managing droughts and floods – which if not managed well will endanger the government’s power. It’s a huge complex system with many moving parts … there’s no way a government can have total control over water levels. Depending on the season, you allow water levels in your reservoir to be higher or lower … but you try to prevent levels from getting above a certain point or below a certain point, and if they do you have to take drastic measures to prevent complete chaos.”

Given that almost all of the ruling Chinese elite are engineers, you can see why this approach would make sense to them. It’s both rational and feasible. And it provides such an instructive comparison with GCHQ, whose pet project for hoovering the network is codenamed – wait for it! – “Mastering the internet”. Interesting metaphor that, eh?