Protecting the open internet from China’s latest governance body

FILE PHOTO: People walk in front of a screen at the World Internet Conference (WIC) in Wuzhen, Zhejiang province, China, October 20, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song/File Photo
People walk in front of a screen at the World Internet Conference (WIC) in Wuzhen, Zhejiang province, China, October 20, 2019. (REUTERS/Aly Song)

At a recent meeting of the World Internet Conference, attendees were treated to a preview of China’s vision of the internet. In a trailer showcased as part of the meeting, people walk around a futuristic city experiencing super-connected streets and underground spaces, robots and other artificial intelligence tools provide services, and everyone is connected via 5G networks.

This is the future of the web that China is trying to sell the world, and the World Internet Conference, which took place on July 12 in Beijing, is the latest forum in which it is marketing that future. Now, China plans to turn this gathering into what is being called “the World Internet Conference Organization,” which Beijing hopes will displace existing multistakeholder bodies for internet governance and to advance its vision of authoritarian information controls in the process. While it is far from certain that Beijing will be successful in turning this new body into a successful vehicle for advancing its internet governance agenda, it should serve as a wake-up call for defenders of the open internet to modernize internet governance.

Although the organization is new, the actual gathering is not. The World Internet Conference is an annual dialogue organized by China and started in 2014. Since its founding, the conference has served as a forum for promoting Beijing’s agenda on issues ranging from cybersecurity to emerging technologies to controlling online life. At the conference’s inaugural meeting in Wuzhen, China made clear its intentions for the gathering: using it to affirm the right of state actors to govern the internet as they please, a concept President Xi Jinping has been promoting ever since under the banner of “cyber sovereignty.” Participants included China’s state and business elite, organizations like the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), Facebook, Cisco, and representatives of foreign governments. In the end, the conference turned into a procedural fiasco after attendees received a draft of a statement that was prepared by an unknown source and was slid under their hotel doors overnight. When asked to sign it, few did. Nonetheless, the gathering demonstrated China’s ambitions to use such fora to shape internet governance.

Normally, the ‘who’s who’ of the internet world has attended the World Internet Conference. During its seven years in existence, CEOs like Apple’s Tim Cook and Google’s Sundar Pichai have attended alongside heads of state from Russia and Pakistan. Xi himself has of course also been among them. But civil society is neither invited nor welcome. In 2015, Amnesty International asked technology 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 on and has a fresh look—that of an organization. Although China’s focus on promoting cyber sovereignty remains at its core, Xi aims to position the conference as a forum where crucial internet issues are discussed and resolved. This is a big task for a country that has demonstrated little willingness to participate in the open, global, and interoperable internet, has been excluded from civil society actors and has promoted a model of internet governance that is based on top-down management and control . Xi, however, hopes that given geopolitical shifts caused by resource conflicts and energy shortages, division in the West, and China’s role in technology, standards, and infrastructure development, governments and business will buy into the new organization.

In the short term, it is unlikely that the conference will come to be recognized as a legitimate place for internet governance discussions or that it will displace existing fora for resolving conflicts on internet-related issues. The center of gravity for internet governance discussions is likely to remain with the long-standing Internet Governance Forum (IGF), an annual multi-stakeholder gathering of internet experts and practitioners that has been taking place since 2006 under the UN umbrella. Nonetheless, it is crucial that those committed to a global and open internet remain alert to China’s efforts to shape rules for online life.

China’s bid attempt to build a new internet governance organization comes at a crucial moment. The IGF has been up and running for 17 years and in that time it has mostly failed to produce tangible policy outcomes. While the IGF’s multi-stakeholder model has been successful at a regional and national level, besides the IANA transition (the culmination of a nearly 20-year effort to privatize the internet domain name system), the model has not proved as effective for international issues and has shown itself to be vulnerable to the whims of countries like China. All this gets more complicated by the fact that in three years the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) WSIS+20 review will take place. The review will determine whether global internet governance will continue to be carried out using the multi-stakeholder model or whether it will shift towards the traditional multilateral model, which is what China and Russia want. With this new-ish 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 sort 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 an internet that is centralized and controlled. Although many countries, including in the West, are flirting with ideas of cyber sovereignty, very few are willing to recognize China’s model of internet governance. Even fewer are ready to have China write the narrative for the future of the internet.

China is marketing the World Internet Conference as a way for countries to work together—under China’s guidance—in writing the rules of cyberspace. This is easier said than done. Despite its technological progress, the Chinese internet model has found resistance from countries both in the West and the Global South and no relevant Chinese internet institution is currently making a major impact on policy or governance internationally. In fact, China continues to depend on existing multi-stakeholder internet governance fora like the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), ICANN and, even, the IGF in its attempts to advance its agenda. It is doubtful that Chinese institutional arrangements, such as the links between state and private businesses, the lack of individual liberties, and the use of technology as a tool for censorship and surveillance, will be embraced on a widespread basis. Generally, it is hard to change established rules, unless change in institutional arrangements are altered too. To do so, China would need to identify ways to undermine the legitimately established and accepted normative framework of internet governance. This cannot be done overnight.

In the end, the success of this new Chinese endeavor will come down to inclusivity, or the lack thereof. Successful governance arrangements involve participation by transnational actors, such as NGOs, civil society, and multinational companies. The current internet model does that, at least on paper; China’s does not. Building social consensus is critical when pushing for reforms or new arrangements, and a consensus of the internet community has not embraced China’s model for the internet. At least not yet.

None of this means that things cannot change. There are features in the Chinese model that are appealing to many countries worldwide. China knows that it does not need to export a mirror of its model. It can still undermine the open and global internet by exporting features of it—surveillance technology, regulation, telecommunication networks, fiber, etc. In the long run, these features will be ingrained into countries’ social institutions that would make it impossible to reject China’s Internet model and governance. And China operates on a long-term strategy.

It is time, therefore, for action. What is missing is a clear strategy on how to move forward, and the West, with its allies, must prepare for a more intense fight over the internet compared to 20 years ago. In the past two decades, governments have grown increasingly fond of the internet and want to be more involved in its management; however, current geopolitical shifts dictate that collaboration and international consensus regarding its governance will be challenging.

China’s aspirations for a key role in the governance of the internet can only be checked if the West and its allies show a united front. The number one priority should be for the EU and the United States to resolve their disagreements on issues like how to govern data flows between the two blocs. At the same time, they must be mindful that the way they approach internet regulation can have a global impact—what they do at home gets noticed everywhere. Regulation that undermines the open and global internet or undercuts the multi-stakeholder model and, most likely, will be used against any arguments to the contrary. It is urgent that the EU and the United States find a way to collaborate. The Trade and Technology Council (TTC), for instance, is supposed to provide a vehicle for closer collaboration on key issues, including the flow of data, but has seen limited success so far.

In the meantime, the multi-stakeholder model of internet governance may need reimagining. The model will be up for review in three years and, while the internet is evolving and changing, the multi-stakeholder model has not. It is crucial for liberal democracies to start having a conversation of what sort of a vision for both the internet and the multistakeholder model they can present to the world in 2025.

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

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

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