Protecting the open internet from China’s last governing body

People walk in front of a screen during the World Internet Conference (WIC) in Wuzhen, Zhejiang province, China, October 20, 2019. (REUTERS/Aly Song)

At a recent World Internet Conference meeting, attendees were treated to a glimpse of China’s vision for the Internet. In a trailer shown as part of the reunion, people walk through a futuristic city and discover super-connected streets and underground spaces, robots and other artificial intelligence tools provide services, and all the world is connected via 5G networks.

It is the future of the web that China is trying to sell to the world, and the World Internet Conference, held July 12 in Beijing, is the latest forum in which it is marketing that future. Now, China plans to transform this gathering into the so-called “World Internet Conference Organization”, which Beijing hopes will replace existing multi-stakeholder bodies for internet governance and advance its vision of controls. information authorities in the process. While it is far from certain that Beijing will succeed in transforming this new body into an effective vehicle for advancing its internet governance agenda, it should serve as a wake-up call for open internet advocates to modernizing internet governance.

Although the organization is new, the gathering itself is not. The World Internet Conference is an annual dialogue hosted by China and launched in 2014. Since its inception, the conference has served as a forum to promote Beijing’s agenda on issues ranging from cybersecurity to emerging technologies to online life control. At the conference’s inaugural meeting in Wuzhen, China made clear its intentions for the gathering: to use it to affirm the right of state actors to govern the internet as they please, a concept that President Xi Jinping has since promoted under the banner of “cyber sovereignty.” Attendees included China’s state and business elite, organizations such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), Facebook, Cisco, and foreign government officials. account, the conference turned into a procedural fiasco after attendees received a draft statement prepared by an unknown source and slipped under their hotel doors overnight. Nevertheless, the gathering demonstrated China’s ambitions to use such forums to shape internet governance.

Normally, the “who’s who” of the Internet world attends the World Internet Conference. In its seven years of existence, CEOs like Apple’s Tim Cook and Google’s Sundar Pichai have participated alongside Russian and Pakistani heads of state. Xi himself was of course 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 has a new look, that of a organization. While China’s emphasis on promoting cyber-sovereignty remains at the heart of his concerns, Xi aims to position the conference as a forum where crucial internet issues are discussed and resolved. This is a daunting task for a country that has been unwilling to participate in the open, global and interoperable internet, has been excluding civil society actors and has promoted a model of governance of the internet based on top-down management and control. . However, Xi hopes that given the geopolitical changes caused by resource conflicts and energy shortages, the division in the West and China’s role in technology, standards and infrastructure development, governments and businesses will join the new organization.

In the short term, the conference is unlikely to be recognized as a legitimate venue for discussions of internet governance or to replace existing forums for resolving disputes over internet-related issues. The center of gravity for Internet governance discussions is likely to remain the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), an annual multi-stakeholder gathering of Internet experts and practitioners that has been taking place since 2006 under the aegis of the United Nations. Still, it’s crucial that those committed to a global and open internet remain mindful of China’s efforts to shape the rules of life online.

China’s bid bid to build a new internet governance organization comes at a crucial time. The IGF has been operational for 17 years and during this period it has barely succeeded in producing tangible political results. While the multi-stakeholder model of the IGF has been successful regionally and nationally, 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 proved vulnerable to the whims of countries like China. All of this is complicated by the fact that in three years time the WSIS+20 review of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) will take place. The review will determine whether global internet governance will continue to be conducted according to the multi-stakeholder model or whether 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 an 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. Although many countries, including in the West, flirt with ideas of cybersovereignty, very few are ready to recognize the Chinese model of internet governance. Even fewer are ready for China to write the story of the future of the internet.

China is marketing the World Internet Conference as a way for countries to work together, under China’s leadership, to draft cyberspace rules. It’s easier said than done. Despite its technological advancements, the Chinese Internet model has met with resistance from countries in the West and the South, and no relevant Chinese Internet institution currently has a major impact on politics or governance internationally. In fact, 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 ties between public and private companies, lack of individual freedoms, and use of technology as a tool for censorship and surveillance, will be widely adopted. As a rule, it is difficult to change established rules unless changes in institutional arrangements are also changed. To do so, China should identify ways to undermine the legitimately established and accepted normative framework of internet governance. This cannot happen 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 Internet model does, at least on paper; This is not the case with China. Building social consensus is essential when it comes to pushing for reforms or new arrangements, and an Internet community consensus has not adopted China’s Internet model. At least not yet.

None of this means things can’t change. Certain features of the Chinese model appeal to many countries around the world. China knows that it does not need to export a mirror of its model. It can further undermine the open and global internet by exporting features of it – surveillance technology, regulation, telecom networks, fiber, etc. In the long run, these features will be embedded in countries’ social institutions, which would make it impossible to reject China’s model and internet governance. And China operates on a long-term strategy.

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

China’s aspirations to play a key role in Internet governance can only be halted if the West and its allies come together. The number one priority should be for the EU and US to resolve their disagreements over issues such as how to handle data flows between the two blocs. At the same time, they should keep in mind that their approach to internet regulation can have a global impact: what they do at home gets noticed everywhere. Regulation that undermines the open and global internet or undermines the multi-stakeholder model can and, most 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 meant to provide a vehicle for closer collaboration on key issues, including data flow, but has had limited success so far.

In the meantime, the multi-stakeholder model of internet governance may need to be rethought. The model will be revisited in three years, and while the Internet evolves and changes, the multi-stakeholder model has not. It’s crucial that liberal democracies start having a conversation about what kind of vision for the internet and multi-stakeholder model they can present to the world in 2025.

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

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

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