US, China experts differ on Net governance

During a discussion at the fourth World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, China, yesterday, US panellists called for a multi-stakeholder approach, while the Chinese said the role of governments cannot be overstated.
During a discussion at the fourth World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, China, yesterday, US panellists called for a multi-stakeholder approach, while the Chinese said the role of governments cannot be overstated.PHOTO: REUTERS

Americans urge multi-stakeholder approach, while Chinese think role of govts is also key

The way to set rules and norms for the Internet continues to divide China and the United States, with their experts no closer to finding consensus on core issues.

A panel discussion yesterday on how major countries can work together in cyberspace, including in cyber security, saw the American panellists calling for a multi-stakeholder approach, while the Chinese said the role of governments cannot be overstated.

The government needs to be "at its proper position" in decision-making bodies for there to be effective, cross-border cooperation on global governance of the Internet, said Professor Shen Yi, director of Fudan University's Global Cyberspace Governance Study Centre.

Prof Shen, who was speaking at the fourth World Internet Conference, pointed out that the minimal authority of governments in the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) is why he was pessimistic about the current framework.

Icann is the non-profit agency responsible for the Domain Name System, a global directory that ensures Web addresses function correctly. The US stopped overseeing the body last year, but countries like China and Russia prefer that its functions be handled by a multi-government agency, such as the United Nations.

Technological advances might one day give China an opportunity to write the rules for a new governing body, said Prof Shen.

But American academics such as Yale University senior fellow Graham Webster said that while governments have a role to play, many of the emergent problems related to the Internet require a "diversified approach" that also involves the private sector, researchers and civil society.

Brookings Institution fellow Ryan Hass agreed, noting that government-level efforts have not kept pace with the development of cyberspace threats.

Mr Hass, who oversaw China affairs at the National Security Council under the Obama administration, noted that while China and the US reached an important agreement not to sponsor cyber espionage against each other in 2015 that was then replicated by other parties such as the Group of 20, Asean and the Nordic states, efforts petered out once Mr Barack Obama stepped down as president.

"We should work from the bottom up, building and broadening coalitions of like-minded actors around common norms, and making progress where progress is possible," Mr Hass said.

Chinese academics also defended Beijing's control of the Internet during a lively question-and-answer session.

Professor Wang Yiwei of Renmin University said China does not block access to websites like Google, but is instead trying to get them to "localise". "It's like how we learnt Buddhism from India, but now it's not the original Indian Buddhism," said the director of Renmin's Institute of International Affairs.

Google, however, is inaccessible in China without special circumvention tools, and China has cracked down on their use in recent months.

Absolute power leads to absolute corruption, Prof Wang said. Seizing the last word after moderators concluded the session, he added, referring to the conference site: "Without Wuzhen, without the rise of China, without Baidu, the US will be abusing your power."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 05, 2017, with the headline 'US, China experts differ on Net governance'. Print Edition | Subscribe