As the Winter Olympics kicked off in Beijing, the Chinese and Russian presidents, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, stood in unity to offer mutual support and to challenge the dominance of the U.S. and Europe. There is more at stake in their renewed close partnership than NATO expansion and the crisis in Ukraine, or the supply of natural gas to China from Russia.
The joint statement that the two countries issued in Beijing proclaimed their support for the “internationalization of Internet governance” and “equal rights of countries to regulate the world-wide web.” They pledged to “deepen bilateral cooperation in international information security,” declared support for an “international convention on countering the use of information technologies for criminal purposes,” and advocated greater participation in the International Telecommunications Union, the United Nations specialized agency for information and telecommunications technologies, in addressing these issues.
The world should be alarmed by such resolutions from two nations known for censoring the internet, banning social media and messaging platforms, putting dissidents in jail over comments posted online, and launching misinformation campaigns to meddle in elections in other countries, including the U.S.
At the Beijing Winter Olympics, athletes and journalists had to make use of officially provided wi-fi at designated hotels and venues in order to access the “unobstructed” internet, including services like Twitter, YouTube or Facebook, all banned in China. The mobile app provided by Beijing authorities to all participants – My2022 – was found by independent researchers to be a Trojan horse that could secretly harvest users’ data, which, under Chinese laws, can be passed on to the state.
In Russia, Russian authorities successfully demanded the removal of a voting app created by prominent dissident Alexei Navalny from the app stores of both Apple and Google, alleging that it contained “illegal content.” The country also furthered its censorship efforts to block the use of encryption technology through the Tor browser and several other virtual private network services in 2021, a year that Human Rights Watch called the “year of doubling down on Internet censorship.”
These acts of censorship and surveillance speak clearly about what kind of vision of internet governance China and Russia have in mind. Their interpretation of internet information security is about the security of their regimes, not of the security and privacy of users inside or outside of their countries. An internet governance framework with such toxic underlying values of censorship and surveillance should be extremely horrifying to anyone.
Particularly for China, however, such attempts to influence and indeed dominate global technology standards and governance are nothing new. Over the last few decades, China has invested heavily to participate in and influence global technology standard bodies. In November 2021, the Communist Party Central Committee and the State Council published the National Standardization Development Outline, spelling out goals and actions for “China Standards 2035.” These “China standards” are by all means meant to be made global.
The European Union has been on high alert about China’s ambition, and recently outlined a “more aggressive approach” to setting global standards, in order to ensure its leadership in development areas such as internet technologies, artificial intelligence and green technologies. To the Europeans, it was clear that China’s standard-setting exercises at the international level were meant to provide a competitive edge to China and its companies.
International technological standards-setting and internet governance frameworks are complex and diverse. It is also important to remember that traditionally standard settings are led by the private sector and research communities, not by state actors, for good reasons. Chinese and Russian representatives should have their seats at the table, but the world must be extremely cautious about such standard-setting processes being taken over by companies controlled by autocratic regimes, tasked with their governments’ political agenda. It would be even worse if such autocratic governments are to directly steer and dominate such processes.
The EU has disclosed that they would seek to cooperate with U.S. authorities to monitor emerging standards and to unify the positions from both sides of the Atlantic through regular meetings at the Trade and Technology Council. Clearly, the urgency of autocratic competition means that the two sides must coordinate at a much higher administrative level. However, the present animosity between the Western “big tech” firms and their governments may threaten to divert the Western governments’ attention from the need to cooperate on the global stage of standards and governance – between the private and public sectors, and across nations.
Moreover, just bringing Europe and the U.S. together may not be enough, as players from Asia, Africa, and the rest of the world must be involved, as well as the private sector and civil societies, in setting the standards and governance that will shape the future internet and its next-generation enabling technologies. Only than can the world build a dam against the tides of censorship and surveillance from the emerging alliance of autocratic states.
We must do so to defend and ensure a free, open, secure, and trusted future internet that supports the principles of democracy and human rights by being more open and inclusive, and differentiate that vision against the governance model promoted by China and Russia, one that is designed to censor and surveil in the pretense of security.