Over the next few years, a war will be fought over the future direction of the internet. On one side is the free, open web we have in the West. On the other, the censorship and control favoured by China and an increasing number of emerging economies. This morning, we take a look at China’s ominous plans…
We all know that relations between the US and China are at a low ebb right now. Donald Trump has imposed tariffs on a raft of Chinese goods with the authorities in Beijing retaliating with tariffs on a range of US imports, largely produced by Trump’s natural constituency.
The US government has also taken action against Chinese telecoms companies ZTE and Huawei, with disturbing allegations that Huawei was among the companies with whom Facebook had data-sharing arrangements, sparking fears that the Chinese government could now possess sensitive data on US citizens.
We have written previously about China’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative – the land and sea initiative designed to extend China’s influence into a great many of the world’s emerging markets and – in turn – secure the raw materials and natural resources that China’s ever-expanding economy requires.
However there is another initiative close to Xi Jinping’s heart and, with Xi now de facto ruler of China for life, it’s an initiative which has the potential to affect us all – China’s bid to define the future shape and to take control of the internet.
Former US Vice President Al Gore famously claimed to have invented the internet. Could Chinese leader Xi Jinping be the man to close it down, as China plots the first competitive alternative to the open internet? Worryingly, it is a model that is gaining traction around the world.
Development of the Internet
For almost half a century the US has guided the development of the internet from a small Pentagon programme to the global platform we see today. But this may not continue as Xi Jinping sets out to turn China into a “cyber-superpower.” More people in China have access to the internet than in any other country: Chinese companies are outstripping their Western counterparts. But Xi has far grander and – some would say – far more sinister plans.
Through domestic regulations, technological innovations and foreign policy, China aims to build an “impregnable” cyber-defence system. Ostensibly that will foster more world-class Chinese companies and the lead the world in advanced technology: it might also just completely change the way we are able to use the web and the sites we can access.
What is China planning?
Xi Jinping has already created a powerful government body to centralise China’s cyberspace policies. It has introduced dozens of regulatory and technical standards that give the Chinese Government control over all aspects of the internet, from the underlying infrastructure, to the flow of data, to the information that is available, to the software used to access the internet and the hardware that controls everything from e-commerce to industrial control systems.
China appears to have three key aims in taking this action:
- Firstly, it wants to defend itself against cyber attacks and to keep any stolen data off the black market.
- Secondly, the government wants to support domestic industry and make China much less reliant on foreign technology, especially for products deemed essential to economic and national security
- But thirdly, and most worryingly, the government wants to control and monitor the economic, social and political information available online. Freedom House already ranks China as the world’s “worst abuser of internet freedom,” noting that the government and its agencies employ “hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people to monitor, evaluate and censor online content.” Want an example of that? The latest Winnie the Pooh film is banned in China. Why? Because too many people scurrilously tweet that Winnie the Pooh looks exactly like the Beloved Leader…
How have other countries reacted?
So the position looks bleak in China, and it is not going to improve any time soon. The big problem is that an increasing number of countries are eagerly leaping on the Chinese bandwagon.
Russia – no surprise there – has an internet model very similar to China. Vietnam recently adopted a cybersecurity law that mirrors China’s and India has also imposed indigenous technical standards.
Perhaps the most worrying developments though – at least currently – are in Africa. Back in 2015 China selected Tanzania as a pilot country for ‘China/Africa capacity building.’ Simply put, ‘we will invest in your economy in return for raw materials.’
Since 2015 Tanzania has introduced cyber-crime laws and restrictions on content and blogging that exactly mirror China’s. Tanzania’s deputy minister for communications explained,
“Our Chinese friends have managed to block media in their country and replace it with homegrown sites that are safe, constructive and popular.” George Orwell could not have put it better himself.
…And it is not just Tanzania. Nigeria, Ethiopia and several other countries in Africa all engage in aggressive online content control. With the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative set to extend Chinese influence further into Africa and other emerging economies, do not be surprised to see more and more countries adopting these aggressive levels of internet monitoring and control.
China’s model is diametrically opposed to the fundamental principles of the internet in market-led Western democracies – and the next few years are likely to see a battle waging between the two models. The problem is, that you suspect quite a few leaders of ‘market-led Western democracies’ would also rather like to control what is available on the internet.
Am I being alarmist?
You may think this article has been a little alarmist for a Friday morning. But one last thought before you go: I started writing this article on Thursday afternoon. When I went online this morning one of the first stories I saw was this one: ‘Google staff attack censored China search engine.’ Having quit China eight years ago in protest at the country’s censorship laws and alleged government hacks, Google is allegedly now building a censored search engine for the Chinese market.
Google staff say it raises “urgent moral and ethical questions.” Too right it does. So enjoy the internet this weekend as you access any site you want to access. But do not expect it to last forever.
If companies and organisations want to deal with China their hardware and software is going to need to meet Chinese standards and the data is going to be stored in China. And if you think the EU’s ‘right to be forgotten’ under the GDPR regulations is going to have a hope in hell against that then you need to increase your medication, and quickly.