Cyber Sovereignty

by Fabrizia Candido, Centro Studi Internazionali

OCTOBER 28, 2020
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Towards a new Internet Protocol: the Chinese alternative aiming at “cyber sovereignty”


There seems to be consensus that the current model of Internet governance — defined by the Financial Times as a lawless self-regulation by private, mostly American companies (Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook) — is broken.  “The conflicts surrounding Internet governance are the new spaces where political and economic power are unfolding in the 21st century” wrote the academic Laura DeNardis in her 2014 book The Global War for Internet Governance. The efforts to move towards a new IP (Internet Protocol) are symbolic of the intention to change the way the Internet is currently run. In particular, such an initiative is strongly promoted by those governments that were left out when the Internet was founded circa fifty years ago.

Among these, the Chinese government has specifically pushed for re-designing Internet infrastructure and standards, presenting its censorship tools as proof-of-concept for a more efficient Internet, to be potentially exported elsewhere. While the US, UK and Europe seem focused on adapting today’s system to introduce more regulatory power and give intelligence agencies greater access to users’ personal data, the Chinese New IP proposal is based on a system of centralised rule enforcement into the technical fabric of the Internet. It is not surprising that countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia – seeking to legitimize the manipulation and restriction or censorship of digital content - have previously shown support for Chinese alternative network technologies. Implementing these proposals would shape a reality in which everyone within a country’s borders would need permission from the Internet provider to surf the web for any kind of activity — downloading an app, looking for a picture or accessing a site — and authorities could have the power to deny access.

“Right now we have two versions of the Internet — a market-led capitalist version based on surveillance, which is exploitative; and an authoritarian version also based on surveillance” Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, said. The global implementation of the Chinese proposal, technically the second version mentioned by Zuboff, would lead to a patchwork of national internets, each with its own rules - a concept known in China as cyber sovereignty (网络主权  wangluo zhuquan). 

“Within Chinese territory, the Internet is under the jurisdiction of Chinese sovereignty. The Internet sovereignty of China should be respected and protected” claimed in fact the White Paper on the Internet published in 2010 by the authorities of People’s Republic of China. It was only 16 years after China was first connected and by that time there were only 384 million Chinese Internet users. Nevertheless, the document already affirmed China’s right to govern the Internet within its borders according to its domestic laws and sovereignty, implicitly defending its attitude to censorship. 

According to the Chinese laws and regulations the spread of information that contains content subverting state power, undermining national unity or infringing upon national honour and interests are prohibited. Under the doctrine of Internet sovereignty, these laws – originally destined to the traditional media forms – enter into force against content online, working as a justification for China’s “Great Firewall”, the world’s most advanced digital censorship apparatus - developed in the early 1990s - that stops citizens from connecting to banned foreign websites (from Google to The New York Times) as well as blocking politically sensitive domestic content and preventing mass organising online. This is part of a national security prerogative to uphold Chinese Communist Party rule at all costs and justified by pointing to Western “interference” with the aim of casting China into chaos.

Xi Jinping’s view of each nation’s right to “cyber sovereignty” was first introduced in 2015 at the second World Internet Conference (WIC) held in Wuzhen, a river-village in Zhejiang Province, near Shanghai. “No country should pursue cyber hegemony” he said, defending “the right of individual countries to independently choose their own path of cyber development and model of cyber regulation and participate in international cyberspace governance on an equal footing”. In the same occasion, Xi stated that the principle of sovereign equality is enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations and that it covers all aspects of state-to-state relations, which also includes cyberspace.

“Under the guise of sovereignty and security, the Chinese authorities are trying to rewrite the rules of the Internet, so censorship and surveillance become the norm everywhere. This is an all-out assault on Internet freedoms” claimed Roseann Rife, the East Asia research director at Amnesty International.

The concept is differently interpreted – or at least presented – by the Chinese leaders: Lu Wei, the director of China’s Cyberspace Administration, put it in a press conference that “Internet freedom requires strict order.”

Can China really export such a vision? Some analysts claim that China will control the global Internet via its Digital Silk Road (DSR), the technology sidekick to the Belt and Road Initiative introduced in 2015 by an official Chinese government white paper. Beijing has signed memoranda of understanding on building a “Digital Silk Road” — or system of advanced IT infrastructure — with 16 countries.  The DSR becomes relevant if we consider Beijing as seeking to align global technology standards developed by bodies such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) with proprietary technologies used and provided by Chinese suppliers — an effort that is easier if countries are already using made in China technology. 

In conclusion, while we are used to imagining a global Internet with no borders or other national boundaries, China has in fact managed to build its own online world and is now helping other countries - primarily Russia, but also east African nations such as Uganda - control their citizens' online actions as well. If it is true that the current model of the Internet is flawed (if not even broken as defined at the beginning of this article), at the present there is only one other fully realized model out there, China’s one. If the attempt to come up with a third model fails, it is likely that more and more countries will tilt towards the Chinese model, rather than deal with the fallout of the failing Silicon Valley one.