What a sovereign internet could mean for free speech

The internet was expected to democratise the sharing of information. Now, more countries are pushing for censorship and digital authoritarianism, with China leading the way

Protestors in the Philippines attend ‘The Day We Fight Back’, a global protest against mass cyber surveillance

In June 1989, on a visit to London, US President Ronald Reagan condemned the Tiananmen Square massacre. Reagan offered a vision of hope. He celebrated the unstoppable march of democracy, claiming it would be fuelled by a revolution in communications technology. “You cannot massacre an idea,” he told his 1,000-strong audience. “The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip.”

Yet massacring an idea is exactly what China set out to do. Starting with the communications technology that Reagan had praised, China began to wipe away all evidence of the events in Tiananmen Square. To this day, Chinese search results for Tiananmen Square yield no mention of the massacre. Even coded messages, such as a hand of playing cards showing the year, month and date of the massacre (89/6/4) will not slip past the censor.

In its early days, techno-optimistic commentators saw the internet as a bastion for liberal democracy, exposing people all over the world to new ideas, democratising nations and gradually eroding authoritarian regimes. Few predicted the force for censorship the internet could become. Today, however, the Chinese model of the internet – protected by the Great Firewall – has been hugely effective and that model is now growing in popularity around the world.

Remodelling the Web
When it first emerged as a borderless, transnational entity, the internet seemed liberal by its very nature. It was as though the democratic principles of freedom, openness and individualism were hardwired into it. But China had a rather different vision for the internet.

Techno-optimistic commentators saw the internet as a bastion for liberal democracy, exposing people all over the world to new ideas

In 1997, Beijing enacted its first laws criminalising online content deemed harmful to national security or the interests of the state. Soon after, it began working on the Golden Shield Project, which provided the foundations for China’s Great Firewall. At the time, figures like Bill Clinton mocked China’s efforts to manage the flow of information within its borders (attempting to control the internet, he said, was like “trying to nail Jell-O to the wall”). But China has succeeded in building a virtual world that mirrors the lives of its citizens, through which the state determines what information its subjects can access.

James Griffiths, author of The Great Firewall of China, has set out to understand how China built the world’s most sophisticated system for surveillance and online censorship. “As information passes into and out of the country, the Great Firewall inspects it and blocks anything undesirable,” Griffiths told The New Economy. “It can also block tools to avoid censorship, such as virtual private networks. At a local level, Beijing relies on domestic tech firms to censor and survey users themselves. They are obliged legally to hand over data to the authorities when asked and are expected to follow unwritten rules and avoid invisible red lines on what to censor, which means most err on the side of over-censorship lest they face punishment.”

Now Russia is following suit. This year, Putin passed two bills to cut off the Russian internet from the rest of the world. Until recently, disconnecting from the global internet was thought to be impossible. After all, China created its own independent infrastructure from the start of the internet boom. Russia, by comparison, had baggage.

“A few years ago, most people would have said Russia’s internet was too entangled with the rest of the world’s and its citizens too used to online freedoms to head fully in the direction of China’s internet, but now that seems a lot less certain,” said Griffiths. “Recent moves by the Kremlin have severely tightened internet regulation and Russian officials are clearly basing their tactics on China’s.”

Russia has spent the past few years enacting laws that force international companies to store Russian data within the country’s borders. Now, the Kremlin is trying to produce a Russia-only copy of the internet’s DNS servers. A DNS server is the database that tells the internet how to translate hostnames into IP addresses. With a Russia-only DNS server, online users would be redirected from foreign sites, meaning they’d have no access to external information. If Russia succeeds in disentangling itself from the global internet, it will prove that the internet can be remoulded into an alternative model that values sovereignty over openness.

A tool for control
Under Chinese President Xi Jinping, cyber sovereignty has become a key part of China’s foreign policy. Through the Belt and Road Initiative, China is supplying many countries not just with roads and railways, but also advanced infrastructure such as broadband networks and data centres. In February, Chinese tech giant Huawei opened its first cloud data centre in Egypt. Meanwhile, in Morocco, China is helping to build the much-anticipated smart city Tangier Tech, which will host 200 Chinese companies.

Alone, these infrastructure projects do not prove that China seeks to influence cyber policy within these countries. However, China is also exporting a global vision for how the internet should operate in all nations. Every year, at the World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, Xi Jinping makes the case for cyber sovereignty, arguing that every country should have the right to choose how they govern their internet.

The Chinese-sponsored initiative seems to be working. According to the Freedom of the Net 2018 Report by Freedom House, 26 out of 65 countries have seen a decline in internet freedom since June 2017. “More repressive governments are trying to use [the internet] for their own goals, which can often be to suppress dissent, silence journalists, silence civil society and better control their citizens,” said Allie Funk, a senior analyst at Freedom House and co-author of the report.

China is the key driving force behind this trend for digital authoritarianism. North African countries are increasingly implementing Chinese-style cyber policies. Nigeria recently enacted measures that require consumer data to be hosted within its borders and last year Egypt passed a law allowing it to ban social media accounts with more than 5,000 followers if these accounts publish ‘fake news’ or criticise the government.

The guise of security
The allure of a sovereign internet, particularly for poorer countries, is not so hard to understand. The revelations made by Edward Snowden, cyberattacks like WannaCry and the spread of misinformation have all eroded trust in an open internet. However, as Dr Tim Stevens, Lecturer in Global Security at King’s College London, pointed out, grouping fundamentally distinct issues like these is exactly what makes cyber sovereignty a problematic concept.

“You have two sets of problems,” said Stevens. “One is basically a hacking issue. The other one is a political issue. And I would resist the inclusion of one within the other. I wouldn’t count political issues around free speech, for example, as a computer security issue. But we’ve been told that internet sovereignty is the answer to this nonetheless… It’s not cyber attacks that are a problem from the Chinese perspective, it’s the spread of undesirable political ideas within its borders. That’s what’s motivated cyber sovereignty – nothing else.”

It is increasingly common for governments to move towards digital authoritarianism under the guise of a public concern such as national security. For example, the Kremlin claims that an independent Russian internet would better defend the nation against cybersecurity threats. But, in reality, Russia seeks to control the information its citizens can access.

Russian senator Yelena Mizulina defended the new internet laws at an internet safety forum in April, saying: “What are rights? They’re the biggest lack of freedom. I can tell you that the more rights you have, the less free we are. A ban is when the person is free because it says ‘this is impossible, but with everything else – [you can] do what you want’.” Many critics leapt on her backwards reasoning as eerily reminiscent of the slogan used in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”

It is increasingly common for governments to move towards digital authoritarianism under the guise of a public concern such as national security

Another public concern harnessed to convince governments of the benefits of a sovereign internet is fake news. In the last two years, Russia, Kenya and Singapore have all passed laws banning fake news. Such laws were criticised as attempts to muzzle the media. Funk argues that deploying censorship laws under the pretext of regulating fake news is becoming increasingly common: “Governments are taking a very serious issue and a genuine problem that we need constructive solutions to and manipulating it into a tool for censorship.”

A divided cyberspace
Cyber sovereignty isn’t just the preserve of countries with weaker democracies. All around the world, governments are establishing stricter digital borders. Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US have all called on organisations to create “access solutions” that would open security backdoors to company data.

Data localisation is also becoming more prevalent. India wants foreign technology and payment firms to store their data locally, while France’s defence minister wants French intelligence agencies to use local alternatives to Palantir, the American data analytics company.

As nations move to protect their data, some argue that the disintegration of the World Wide Web is inevitable. In Rise of a Cybered Westphalian Age, authors Chris Demchak and Peter Dombrowksi posit that nations will increasingly seek to establish cyber territories. “No frontier lasts forever,” the authors claim. “No freely occupied global commons extends endlessly where human societies are involved.”

However, Stevens warns that the idea of an inevitable move towards cyber sovereignty may not be so straightforward. “This is a process not driven by any of the structural factors in the world system,” he said. “This is driven by politics, and where there is politics, other visions are possible.”

Furthermore, Stevens believes the international community must do more to engage in the debate around the role of the internet. “I think the interesting thing about cyber sovereignty is that it’s a very live diplomatic discussion,” said Stevens. “It’s Russia and China’s bid to lead the debate on this, on cybersecurity and around norms of state behaviour in this environment. It’s going to be really interesting to see what happens and how much traction China can get. You see, the Chinese model can often get dismissed in this debate because it’s not what we like. And I think that’s foolish. I think that’s absolutely counterproductive. We need to engage with it.”

Western governments have traditionally overlooked the idea that the internet could be a tool for totalitarianism. This complacency has fuelled the rise of digital authoritarianism. Perhaps liberal thinkers underestimated the force for hate speech and disinformation that the internet would become. Perhaps optimism allowed them to imagine that the internet would function as a self-regulating ecosystem. Whatever the cause, failing to recognise that the internet can be censored and controlled has contributed to a worldwide decline in internet freedom. The international community must accept the rising popularity of an alternative internet, before this basic human right is further undermined.

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