Rachel Chang

China's bid for Internet influence

The country known for its great firewall champions respect for each country's sovereign control of online space.

The irony was lost on no one. 

China's inaugural World Internet Conference (WIC) last week in Zhejiang province had, as its slogan, "an inter-connected world shared and governed by all".

This, from a country whose landmark cyberspace achievement has been to construct the world's most elaborate and formidable firewall to block its citizens from the world. 

Worse, a joint declaration, drawn up by organisers to mark the end of the two-day conference - attended by industry players from over a hundred countries - was dropped after overseas attendees revolted.

Slipped under hotel room doors at 11pm at the end of the second day, the document prominently mentioned mutual respect for each country's sovereign control and regulation of the Internet - a controversial Chinese doctrine that many see as a fig leaf for repression and censorship.

Revisions would need to be submitted by early next morning, attendees were told. Needless to say, few were willing to be bulldozed into signing the document overnight. 

With this topper, Western media dubbed the conference a fiasco, even as the Chinese media called it a "watershed" event that marked a shift from a global cyberspace led by the United States. 

Still, as the lodestar of a philosophy of Internet governance that is growing in worldwide influence and home to a quarter of the world's Internet users and some of cyberspace's most valuable firms, China cannot be ignored.

More importantly, the holding of the conference gave notice of a change in China's modus operandi, from one of blocking out the global Internet community to engaging with it.

A 'less free' Internet

THIS shift is significant for the global Internet community, given that China's philosophy of Internet governance is gaining traction in some parts of the world.

Beijing has recently moved to centralise and coordinate its cyberspace governance. The formation of the "leading small group on cyber security and informatisation" this year headed by President Xi Jinping himself raised the sector to a top-level policy priority. 

This year also saw a fortifying of the Great Chinese Firewall - Google and Instagram, among others, were pushed out - and a crackdown on Chinese social media. Scores of netizens have been arrested for the crime of "spreading rumours"; they can now be sentenced to up to three years' jail for tweeting "false information". Users have reacted to the fraught atmosphere by fleeing Weibo, a Twitter-like microblog service. 

That China is doubling down on Internet control is perhaps less surprising than the fact that the rest of the world is following, to various degrees, in its footsteps.

Dubbed "Internet sovereignty", Beijing's core philosophy is that the government has the right to police and defend Chinese cyberspace boundaries, as it does the state's physical borders. 

As Mr Lu Wei, director of the State Internet Information Office, told reporters last month: "I don't try to go into your house and take down your websites. But it is my right to decide who can be a guest in my home."

Increasingly, both democratic and authoritarian states are applying this very idea. It is not just illiberal Iran, Saudi Arabia and Russia that are following China's lead, but democracies like India and Brazil are also experiencing "deteriorating Internet freedom". 

Last year, of the 60 countries surveyed by American think-tank Freedom House for its annual "Freedom on the Net" report, 34 were becoming less free, whether in terms of more Internet blocking and filtering, more cyber laws and arrests, or more paid pro-government commentators. 

"Most countries - including many democracies - have started to apply various laws and practices from the real world to cyberspace," said project director Sanja Kelly. "France blocks anti-Semitic websites, Japan has stiff penalties for online copyright infringement, and the United Kingdom restricts online speech that in its view may promote terrorism."

China's Great Firewall is also being emulated: Indian policymakers are debating how - not whether - to implement a nationwide filter "to respect the cultural values of the country and sentiments of Indian society", said policymakers. 

In Singapore, the Government required earlier this year that all news websites be licensed and put down a "performance bond" of $50,000. Content deemed to be in breach of standards would have to be removed within 24 hours of being notified. 

The biggest setback to Internet freedom - and boost for Internet sovereignty - has been the revelations that the US has been using its dominance in technology, services and software to conduct global surveillance on a massive scale.

That it was monitoring not only its own citizens but also international companies and global leaders was revealed by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden last year. 

"The Snowden case really threw a spanner in the works, and the US has lost moral authority in this space when arguing for Internet freedom and it has also lost business," noted Dr Ang Peng Hwa, director of the Singapore Internet Research Centre at Nanyang Technological University.

Leadership of cyberspace

THE revelations have given ballast to efforts to shift leadership of cyberspace away from the US, whether it is to remove the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) from the oversight of the US Department of Commerce or to locate more root servers outside of its borders. 

Beijing has campaigned hard for these moves. But despite China's eagerness and its 600 million Internet users, the global Internet community remains reluctant to give Beijing a bigger leadership role for several reasons. 

A major one is China's poor human rights record. 

Then there is its lack of understanding of how the Internet community works and its insistence on managing it from the top down. For instance, it boycotted the Icann from 2001 to 2009 because it thought it was US-controlled, although Icann is more of a "non-state actor". 

The global Internet community is made up of private sector- based, transnational forms of governance and an ethic of self-regulation. This rankles China because of its foreignness, notes Professor Milton Mueller from the Syracuse University School of Information Studies.

This disconnect was evident in the fracas over the joint declaration at last week's WIC, where attendees were told to endorse a top-down statement. 

But for all its missteps, the WIC was Beijing announcing that it wanted to be at the table, something that Internet-sector figures like Icann vice-president Kuek Yu-Chuang say is a "milestone". 

"Any global solution to current problems that doesn't include China is not a global solution," he said. "And I think what was achieved in the conference is China showing that it wants to be a part of the global conversation, that it's willing to engage and to give access to global players to its point of view."  

While China's view of Internet governance will remain unacceptable to many, its shift from boycott to engagement with the global Internet community is a step in the right direction for all. 

rchang@sph.com.sg