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China’s Internet Gambit

Dec 12 , 2014
  • Rogier Creemers

    Research Officer, Programme for Comparative Media Law and Policy

With the Wuzhen Conference, China wades into an increasingly complex Internet governance landscape.

It was an impressive international coming-out party for the newly renamed Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), and its director Lu Wei. Under its previous name of State Internet Information Office, CAC grew from a mere department of the State Council Information Office without independent management staff into a body with power now on par with that of other Party mainstays, such as the Central Propaganda Department. It also hosts the daily work of the Leading Group for Cybersecurity and Informatization, one of the new powerful top-level coordination groups established by Xi Jinping. It is taking the lead on drafting a comprehensive national strategy for Internet development and cybersecurity. At home, Lu has gained plaudits and opprobrium for a much tougher line on online behaviour, which included both crackdowns on social media and online fraud. Internationally, Lu became the figurehead of a broader Chinese push for a greater say in the way the Internet is governed worldwide.

At present, the state of global Internet governance is in flux, which can perhaps be best understood by starting from the observation that the Internet works in three layers. The top layer is the content we all can view on our computer screens: websites, chat services, e-mail, etc. The bottom layer is the hard infrastructure, such as routers, servers, hosts and cables, through which this information is sent. Traditional notions of international Internet governance have, so far, had comparatively little effect on these two spheres. Infrastructure has mainly been the preserve of national telecommunications regulators, while content has most often been dealt through ad hoc rules, for instance concerning cybercrime and data protection. Most attention has, so far, been directed towards the middle layer: the protocols and standards that form the interface between Internet content on the one hand and hardware on the other. Perhaps the most important aspect of this is addressing: the assignment of names and numbers that ensure packets of information sent of from point A arrive correctly at point B.

It is the openness of this addressing system – the fact that anyone can join or expand the network as long as they are using the correct publicly available protocols – that has enabled the enormous expansion of the Internet: it literally enables everything to talk to anything else. From an engineering point of view, it also enables resilience, something particularly important in the formative period of the Internet. While it may be so that network technology was partly designed with survivability of nuclear attacks in mind, a more prosaic explanation is that early hardware tended to be slow and buggy, and software had to compensate for this. Yet another inheritance from this period is the influence from the mind-set of those early Internet pioneers, a small group of technologically minded people who tended to be well acquainted with each other. The social norms and “netiquette” they developed, as well as the modes of professional interaction and governance were well suited to the small communities that formed around network nodes, and often rejected traditional ideas about statecraft, including governmental sovereignty and jurisdiction. The engineering objective of openness through interoperability and the possibility of optimal solutions to technical problems translated into the social-political sphere, often without examination or reflection. Consequently, it is often held that the Internet must not only be open in technological terms, but in content terms as well. “Balkanization,” perhaps the most despised entry in the Internet governance dictionary, should not only be resisted where it applies to compatibility, but also to the divergence of norms on governing content. The Internet, it is held, works best without strict rules, and certainly without unwanted influence from governments. Information, apparently, wants to be free.

These views are now rapidly changing at the international level, as it is now rapidly becoming clear that many of these assumptions were overly optimistic at best and naïve at worst. The United States’ self-projected image of the benevolent steward of the Internet’s technological core was shot to pieces through the Snowden revelations. Amazon’s labour and competition practices are coming under fire, while technology companies are increasingly lambasted for their creative approaches to taxation. Celebrities, such as Jennifer Lawrence, as well as thousands of Snapchat users suddenly found themselves confronted with explicit images being circulated online. Furthermore, the increasing predominance of particular private corporations in certain areas begs questions about to which extent they should start shouldering public duties and responsibilities. Does the abrogation of a Twitter account, for instance, constitute a violation of the right to free speech, if it is increasingly the case that public discourse takes place on these privately owned channels? In short, we are coming to the realization that the Internet is as much influenced by political choice as technological necessity.

We are just about nowhere in constructing the basic architectural foundations of what a global Internet governance model should look like – or even the design of procedures and bodies that could foster such a process. Over the past years, there has been an escalating number of international initiatives, including the Internet Governance Forum, the London – Budapest – Seoul conference series, and Brazil’s NetMundial. The latter produced a relatively vague set of principles, which come across as requiring much more interpretation at best, and conflicting or self-contradictory at worst. Partly, this is due to the enormous complexity of finding consensus on any aspect of content governance, but it also reflects the difficulty the Internet community has in recognising the fact that many proposed values, including respect for the law, democracy and respect for human rights, are not universally recognised in the same manner, or indeed, at all. And this is where China comes in.

China’s fundamental proposition is that different countries must have the power to decide for themselves how they wish to govern their respective cyberspaces. Rejecting concepts of universal values, China argues that the online sphere is a mere extension of the real world, and thus must be subject to the same governmental scrutiny. With particular reference to questions of national security, China often points to the hypocrisy of a “Western” perspective that publicly advocates online openness, but has condoned the vast expansion of worldwide surveillance and monitoring. National governments, they say, should have the final word in deciding on threats concerning social stability and political integrity. It is well known how China deals with this in practice: strict licensing procedures for all Internet operators and websites; pervasive censorship, propaganda and information management; and severe border controls for foreign operators.

Yet at the same time, Chinese leaders are – in general – no Luddites who wish to shut the Internet down. Rather, they espouse a technocratic viewpoint in which the Internet is a capacious conduit for economic and social development – if managed correctly. China’s online industries are flourishing, and partly the Wuzhen conference was about demonstrating that China’s Internet enterprises are poised to compete internationally. Also, with regard to the technologically crucial middle layer, China has historically been a positive if reticent supporter of the current Internet addressing and routing model. While it does propose expanding the function of ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee, the Chinese government has not expressed any intent to break away from the global names and numbers system. In short, China maintains it wishes to ensure the continued technological integrity of the middle layer of the network, but has little time for the argument that such unity of approach must also rule the level of content.

To a certain degree, China’s approach more closely resembles the current reality in Internet governance: the legal framework for content is already fragmented (and, perhaps, always has been). A growing number of governments have implemented laws and regulations to govern particular aspects of online communication. The Court of Justice of the European Union recently concluded that search engines are data controllers under EU law, meaning that citizens can request the removal of search results leading to personal information about themselves. Different countries have different rules on aspects of free speech such as defamation and libel, discriminatory expressions and the sale of Mein Kampf. Not only would it be inestimably difficult to harmonize these rules, there’s a good argument to be made that doing so would limit the democratic principle that a country’s citizens should have something to say about the laws and norms governing its domestic behaviour.

Yet China itself continues to face considerable diplomatic difficulties that impair its leadership on matters of Internet governance. A good number of governments that might agree with certain basic ideas of Internet sovereignty, for instance, seem reluctant to be associated with China’s championing that cause. China’s Internet governance model remains thoroughly unattractive for many overseas observers, who interpret its call for online sovereignty as looking for excuses to continue the coercion and suppression of dissenting voices. Furthermore, the diplomatic style of China’s Internet officials is sometimes clumsy, and sometimes truculent. Perhaps out of overexcitement on a conference going well, perhaps on the basis of earlier planning, Lu Wei arranged for the draft text of a potential Wuzhen Declaration on Internet governance to be delivered to all participants’ hotel rooms late in the evening before the closing ceremony – with the possibility to comment before 8 o’clock the next morning. This Declaration contained a number of contentious issues, but even if that were not the case, many participants were rather taken aback by the way in which the document was foisted onto the conference, without previous information or consultation. For China, this is the sting in the tail of the concept of sovereignty: it requires them to negotiate, on a level field, with other governments who are equally sovereign, and to take responsibility for their commitments at the international level.

Still, China has, so far, rarely been able to articulate concrete proposals for Internet governance at the international level, partly due to the fact that considerable debate remains within leading circles on how to govern the domestic Internet. One particular challenge for the Chinese leadership, and Lu Wei in particular, will be the integration of the diverse viewpoints on Internet and information technology development within the newly established Leading Group for Cybersecurity and Informatization. Previously, Internet policy had been the preserve of different ministries. As a result, policy making took place within relatively autonomous silos, with limited levels of interaction and coordination. The recent centralization of Internet governance (of which the CAC is the poster child) means that all relevant governmental decision makers are now sitting at the same table. However, as any systems engineer knows, the biggest problem in designing a complex environment is integrating its various subcomponents and making them work together. Hitherto, it wasn’t too difficult for China’s propaganda bodies to develop a particular policy on content management, or for the commerce departments to formulate rules on e-commerce in isolation. In contrast, the current setup means that a much higher level of consensus will be necessary between bodies with various compositions, objectives and interests.

To summarize, Lu Wei and the CAC have embarked on a hugely complex project of creating a relatively uniform vision of the role of the Internet in society at home, and having a much bigger impact on the way these questions are answered internationally. This project will soon become even more complex as big data-based services and the Internet of Things become more widespread. China faces an uphill race in gaining the international credibility it needs to become a respected voice at the table – which will not be helped by demarches such as the Wuzhen Declaration. Yet it is unlikely that any Internet governance regime can succeed if it doesn’t include the country that not only hosts the largest number of netizens in the world, but is also the chief manufacturer (and increasingly designer) of much of the hardware through which information is created, disseminated, stored and accessed. This will equally require other governments to recognize the limitations of highly determinative or universalist models of Internet regulation. The alternative is that those in China, Russia and other states who do not share the liberal Internet agenda might push their governments to challenge the technological integrity of the Internet.

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