China's 'Sovereign Internet'

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A new report in People’s Daily interviewed five Chinese experts on Internet security and political thought, including Fang Binxing (credited with creating China’s “Great Firewall”). The report focuses on the idea of “Internet sovereignty” — the idea that each country has the right to control its domestic internet space. Yet by moving from a discussion of China’s rights to talk of international law, the report moves beyond a defense of China’s internet censorship to outlining China’s vision for global internet governance.

The idea of China’s “Internet sovereignty” is a high-profile resurrection of a concept first rolled out in a 2010 white paper called “The Internet in China.” The white paper explained the “Internet sovereignty of China” as meaning that “within Chinese territory the Internet is under the jurisdiction of Chinese sovereignty.” All persons and organizations operating within Chinese territory are expected to follow China’s Internet laws and regulations, the white paper said.

In an interview with New Yorker’s Evan Osnos at the time, Columbia University professor Tim Wu noted that China’s idea of “Internet sovereignty” was simply “a statement of private international law as typically practiced.” Most countries, Wu noted, have decided that the Internet is subject to national laws. The difference between China and the rest of the world, according to Wu, was simply one of scale: “Other countries, if they don’t consider the Internet sovereign, have a certain respect for the network as a platform for free speech … Again this varies from place to place, but China is unique in its lack of respect for the idea of an open Internet.”

Thus, among China’s rules and regulations for the Internet are typical prohibitions against “divulging state secrets” and “subverting state power” as well as more unique bans on “damaging state honor,” “propagating heretical or superstitious ideas,” “spreading rumors [and] disrupting social order and stability.” These rules were lumped into the category of “internet security,” equating these actions to hacking and other forms of cyber crime.

The People’s Daily article seeks to argue not only that China has the right to set up its own rules and regulations for the Internet, but that an international consensus should be reached to recognize this right. The article begins by noting that, in the Internet age, China now has “information borders” in addition to traditional sovereignty over land, air, and sea. The report argues that each country has a right to strengthen control over its own domestic Internet, and that such actions will help safeguard order and stability on the global Internet system.

In the interview with People’s Daily, Fang Binxing pointed to a 2013 report from a UN-commissioned group of experts on information security. That report noted that “state sovereignty and international norms and principles that flow from sovereignty apply to State conduct of ICT [information and communication technologies]-related activities, and to their jurisdiction over ICT infrastructure within their territory.” Fang argued that this statement proves the UN has already accepted China’s idea of “Internet sovereignty.”

Fang made no mention of the next item in the UN report, which requires that “state efforts to address the security of ICTs must go hand-in-hand with respect for human rights and fundamental freedom set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” The juxtaposition of these two points in the UN report outlines the basic difference between China’s concept of the Internet and the Western concept: is cyberspace entirely made up of domestic spheres, each under a different country’s sovereign rule, or is the Internet as a whole subject to international rule in the name of “universal values”? People’s Daily argues for the former approach.

The next expert interviewed, Wang Jun of Minzu University’s Marxism school, acknowledges the difficulty of defining boundaries for cyberspace, but offers some suggestions. “Although cyberspace has no national boundaries, network infrastructure has borders. Internet users have home countries. Internet companies and organizations always belong to a specific country.” Thus Wang suggests that each country can control these physical aspects of cyber space and “other countries have no right to interfere.”

Yet even while holding that “Internet sovereignty” is immune to external interference, the People’s Daily article acknowledged the importance of international consensus on defining cyberspace boundaries and rules of conduct. Currently, disagreements between countries are a major barrier to defining boundaries and implementing control of cyberspace, Wang Xiaofeng of Fudan University’s Center for America Studies said. Lang Ping of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences noted that no country can independently face the challenges posed by cyberspace.

Lang and Wang also see a competition among major powers for influence in cyberspace. Wang said that “some countries” (almost certainly a reference to the U.S.) are “abusing” their technological advantages to conduct cyber-espionage and cyber-attacks. Later, both Fang and Lang explicitly complained that the United States has an outsized role in controlling cyberspace due to its technological prowess. The experts generally agreed on a need for international dialogue and consensus on clear boundaries and rules for Internet control.

China’s goal for this dialogue would be to codify its own interpretation of “Internet sovereignty” into international law, much as Western countries have been able to codify their idea of “universal values.” The People’s Daily article sees cyberspace as a contested zone where the U.S. wields too much influence; it seeks to combat this by pushing for international consensus modeled on its own vision for the Internet.

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