China Is Trying To Rewrite The Rules Of The Global Internet

James Torpey

The second World Internet Conference began yesterday in the eastern Chinese city of Wuzhen. Chinese leaders are organizing at this conference in an attempt to reframe the future of the internet. The conference will continue through Friday, with President Xi Jinping delivering the keynote speech.

The World Internet Conference is part of a larger Chinese effort to redefine debates over cybersecurity, national sovereignty, and censorship.

Chinese leaders have been pushing for the idea of “cyber sovereignty,” which is the idea that each country’s government should maintain independent control over what content is available online within its own borders. There are already a number of countries that censor online content they deem illegal, however, cyber sovereignty takes on an entirely new dimension in China. The country blocks many of the global web giants such as Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram.

Jeremy Goldkorn, the founder of China-focused service and a long-time commentator on the country’s internet, spoke with The WorldPost to explain the impact of China’s push for cyber sovereignty.

How has the Chinese government employed the terms: “cyber sovereignty” and “Internet sovereignty?”

The use of these terms has allowed the Chinese government to argue that they should be absolutely in control of what’s happening on the Internet in China. This has allowed China to take a more confident approach to talking about internet censorship.

Previously it had been a situation where they were trying to make excuses for it at press conferences. The consistent use of these terms has paved the way for a renewed confidence and almost a kind of nationalist, implying that control of the Internet was part of China being a strong country.

How much do you attribute this new confidence to the fallout from the Edward Snowden revelations, and how much to the recognition of China’s strong bargaining power concerning the major Silicon Valley players?

Not surprisingly, Snowden is cited in almost any Chinese government discussion of Internet policy, whether it concerns cybersecurity, hacking, or censorship. But the dynamism of the Chinese language Web sector and the truth that the Silicon Valley giants all want to be here is certainly another issue that they use.

The World Internet Conference attracts Silicon Valley heavyweights. Furthermore, during Xi’s visit to the United States, there was a meeting in Seattle with Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, and the others all attending, almost looking like tributary states.

Another thing that exists is the very real fear of an uncontrolled Internet, brought about by social media, which is a really serious threat to Communist Party control over the country. The watershed moment was the Wenzhou train crash of July 2011 when the party completely lost control of the narrative. Instead, social media was telling the story. This moment supported their views about the threat of an uncontrolled Internet and made that a real factor.

Recently there’s been increased discussion of the Great Firewall as not just an issue of human rights, but also protectionism for local Internet companies. Do you see any leverage for the U.S. pressing these concerns from a free trade perspective?

I could see the United States Internet companies and the U.S. government using the World Trade Organization or some other kind of platform to apply some non-human rights pressure on the wall or restrictions on foreign companies operating in China. Although we have not seen much evidence of this taking place so far. It is a difficult thing when the foreign Internet companies are eager to get a slice of the market; Google apparently has started a company in the Shanghai Free Trade Zone, and it looks like it’s trying to get back in.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. To learn more about China’s attempts to rewrite the rules of the global internet, please check out this article.