China’s “Internet Sovereignty” Initiative

Origins and Consequences
Internet Sovereignty

On Monday, February 29th 2016, The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) hosted a panel discussion on China’s internet sovereignty. The panel featured James Andrew Lewis, Xiao Qiang, Amy Chang, John Lenhart, and moderator, Scott Kennedy.

“China is in the midst of an initiative to promote internet sovereignty as a key governing concept of the global Internet. China has stepped up its efforts over the past year, most recently during the World Internet Conference in Wuzhen. If successful, this initiative could have wide consequences not only for the Internet, but also a wide range of industries, the media, and information accessibility” -CSIS 

The question of internet sovereignty is an ongoing debate around the world as many countries are considering adopting this “structured” approach. Should all nations have the right to control and regulate their own domestic cyberspace?  

At the CSIS event, I learned that the Chinese view of internet sovereignty is focused on regime security, preservation of the Chinese Communist Party, and improvement in the sectors of politics, military legitimacy, and the economy. The World Internet Conference held in Wuzhen attempted to grapple with the many ways in which internet sovereignty can be interpreted. However, free access to the internet should be a fundamental human right. Implementing a policy that emphasizes internet sovereignty is troubling, as it creates the impression that it is not preventing people from accessing the internet, but rather increasing security.

Conversations about “internet sovereignty” are often framed within a broader context, where   cybersecurity is particularly prevalent in issues of national security. Greater control of digital spaces elicit stronger government regulation. This can be helpful for governments that desire to filter data and information. However, most global actors agree that the disadvantages associated with internet sovereignty outweigh security advantages.

In extreme cases, some countries will censor all digital information flows in and out of the country. Internet censorship is a big challenge for foreign businesses. Online businesses cannot thrive economically without an open internet. Striving to become a world hegemon without being seen as a “cyberpower” also presents certain challenges of legitimacy. To be a cyberpower, you must have your own technology platform(s) and it must be well developed. Internet censorship also has a negative impact on the development of new and emerging online companies and technological platforms. Another concern regarding government regulation of cyberspace is the fear that regulators may have increased access to personal information, thus putting citizens at a higher risk for identity theft. Biometric identification on technological platforms, for example, are becoming increasingly more popular. The purpose of biometric identification such as eye or fingerprint scanning is to help make certain items more secure. However, if a government were to regulate the internet, it is possible that one might be able to gain access to these distinct personal details. This may provoke a fear that unique biological information could be placed into the wrong hands and used for personal or political gain. However, regardless of your position, human rights is a central issue of internet sovereignty, and should be carefully and thoughtfully debated so that greater society can maintain freedom and dignity.

Internet freedom is a fundamental pillar of human rights and development. NDI, a recognized thought leader in the internet freedom and civic digital security space, has managed numerous digital programs in a variety of challenging closed societies. We have seen first hand that a free and open internet creates the foundation for citizens to learn, grow, and help establish stronger democracies. It is imperative that global discourse regarding Chinese internet sovereignty, consider the implications and human rights violations associated with the proposed policy.