Protecting the open internet by China’s latest governing body

FILE PHOTO: People walk past a screen at the World Internet Conference (WIC) in Wuzhen, Zhejiang province, China October 20, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song/File Photo
People walk past a screen at the World Internet Conference (WIC) in Wuzhen, Zhejiang province, China, Oct. 20, 2019. (REUTERS/Aly Song)

At a recent meeting of the World Internet Conference, attendees were given a preview of China’s view of the Internet. In a trailer shown as part of the meeting, people walk through a futuristic city experiencing super-connected streets and underground spaces, robots and other AI tools provide services, and everyone is connected via 5G networks.

This is the future of the web that China is trying to sell to the world, and the World Internet Conference, which took place on July 12 in Beijing, is the latest forum where it is marketing that future. Now, China plans to turn this gathering into what it’s calling the World Internet Conference Organization, which Beijing hopes will replace existing multi-stakeholder bodies for internet governance and to advance its vision of authoritarian information controls. in the process. While it is far from certain that Beijing will be able to turn this new body into a successful vehicle for advancing its internet governance agenda, it should serve as a wake-up call for open internet advocates to modernize internet governance. .

While the organization is new, the actual rally itself is not. The World Internet Conference is an annual dialogue organized by China and started in 2014. Since its founding, the conference has served as a forum to advance Beijing’s agenda on issues ranging from cybersecurity to emerging technologies to controlling life online . At the conference’s inaugural meeting in Wuzhen, China made clear its intentions for the rally: to use it to assert the right of state actors to govern the Internet as they please, a concept President Xi Jinping has since promoted under the banner of cyber sovereignty. Attendees included the Chinese state and corporate elite, organizations such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), Facebook, Cisco, and foreign government representatives. Ultimately, the conference turned into a procedural fiasco after attendees received a draft of a prepared statement from an unknown source and it was slipped under hotel doors overnight. When asked to sign it, few did. However, the meeting demonstrated China’s ambitions to use such forums to shape Internet governance.

Normally, the whos who of the Internet world attended the World Internet Conference. During its seven-year existence, CEOs such as Apple’s Tim Cook and Google’s Sundar Pichai have attended alongside heads of state from Russia and Pakistan. Of course, Xi himself was also among them. But civil society is neither invited nor welcome. In 2015, Amnesty International called on tech companies to boycott the conference and reject China’s positions on internet governance. The request fell on deaf ears.

After a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, the conference is back and looking fresh, that of a organization. While China’s focus on promoting cyber sovereignty remains front and center, Xi aims to position the conference as a forum where crucial internet issues are discussed and resolved. This is a big task for a country that has shown little willingness to participate in the open, global and interoperable internet, has excluded civil society actors, and promoted an internet governance model based on top-down management and control. . Xi, however, hopes that given the geopolitical shifts caused by resource conflicts and energy shortages, division in the West, and China’s role in technology, standards and infrastructure development, governments and businesses will join the new organization.

In the near term, the conference is unlikely to be recognized as a legitimate forum for Internet governance discussions or to replace existing forums for resolving conflicts on Internet-related issues. The center of gravity for internet governance discussions is likely to remain with the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), an annual multi-stakeholder meeting of internet experts and practitioners that has been held since 2006 under the auspices of the United Nations. However, it is crucial that those committed to a global and open internet remain alert to China’s efforts to set the rules for life online.

China’s attempt to build a new Internet governance organization comes at a crucial time. The IGF has been up and running for 17 years and in that time has mostly failed to produce tangible political results. While IGF’s multi-stakeholder model has been successful at regional and national levels, in addition to the IANA transition (the culmination of a nearly 20-year effort to privatize the Internet domain name system), the model has not proven as effective for international issues and has shown itself vulnerable to the whims of countries such as China. All this is made more complicated by the fact that in three years time the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) WSIS+20 review will take place. The review will determine whether global Internet governance will continue to be done using the multistakeholder model or if it will move towards the traditional multilateral model, which is what China and Russia want. With this new World Internet Conference Organization, China hopes to convince the world that it can offer a viable alternative.

While these gaps provide an opening for China, developing effective and sustainable Internet governance organizations is a onerous task. Organizations of this type do not exist in isolation but are complex and highly dependent on a specific historical, social and political context. China faces a difficult task in convincing the rest of the world that its new organization is nothing more than a vehicle for a centralized and controlled Internet. While many countries, even in the West, are flirting with ideas of cyber sovereignty, very few are willing to acknowledge China’s model of internet governance. Even fewer are ready to let China write the narrative for the future of the internet.

China is marketing the World Internet Conference as a way for countries to work together under China’s leadership in writing the rules of cyberspace. This is easier said than done. Despite its technological progress, China’s Internet model has met with resistance from countries in both the West and the Global South, and no relevant Chinese Internet institution is currently having a major impact on international policy or governance. Indeed, China continues to depend on existing multi-stakeholder Internet governance forums such as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), ICANN, and even the IGF in its attempts to advance its agenda. It is doubtful that China’s institutional arrangements, such as the ties between state-owned and private enterprises, the lack of individual freedoms, and the use of technology as a tool for censorship and surveillance, will be welcomed on a large scale. In general, established rules are difficult to change unless changes in institutional arrangements are also changed. To do so, China should identify ways to undermine the legitimately established and accepted regulatory framework of internet governance. This cannot be done overnight.

Ultimately, the success of this new Chinese venture will depend on inclusiveness, or lack thereof. Successful governance arrangements involve the participation of transnational actors, such as NGOs, civil society and multinational corporations. The current model of the Internet does, at least on paper; China doesn’t. Building social consensus is critical when pushing for reform or new deals, and an internet community consensus has not embraced the Chinese model for the internet. At least not yet.

None of this means that things can’t change. There are features in the Chinese model that attract many countries around the world. China knows it doesn’t need to export a mirror of its model. It can still undermine the open and global Internet by exporting features of its surveillance technology, regulation, telecommunications networks, fiber, etc. In the long run, these characteristics will be ingrained in countries’ social institutions which would make it impossible to reject China’s Internet model and governance. And China operates on a long-term strategy.

So it’s time to act. What is missing is a clear strategy on how to move forward, and the West, with its allies, must prepare for a more intense Internet struggle than 20 years ago. Over the past two decades, governments have become increasingly fond of the Internet and want to be more involved in its management; however, current geopolitical changes dictate that international collaboration and consensus regarding its governance will be a challenge.

China’s aspirations for a key role in Internet governance can only be tested if the West and its allies show a united front. The number one priority should be for the EU and the US to resolve their disagreements on issues such as how to govern data flows between the two blocs. At the same time, they need to be aware that how they tackle internet regulation can have a global impact, what they do at home is noticed everywhere. Regulation that undermines the open and global internet or undermines the multistakeholder model can and very likely will be used against any argument to the contrary. It is urgent that the EU and the US find a way to work together. The Trade and Technology Council (TTC), for example, is expected to provide a tool for closer collaboration on key issues, including data flow, but has so far met with limited success.

Meanwhile, the multi-stakeholder model of internet governance may need to be reinvented. The model will be under review in three years, and while the internet is evolving and changing, the multistakeholder model is not. It is imperative that liberal democracies start debating what kind of vision for both the internet and the multi-stakeholder model they can present to the world in 2025.

Dr Konstantinos Komaitis is an expert on internet policy and technology, having spent more than a decade in the industry. He is a public speaker, writer and co-host of the Internet of Humans podcast.

Facebook and Google provide financial support to the Brookings Institution, a non-profit organization dedicated to rigorous, independent and in-depth public policy research.

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