Early on, the narrative around the internet was it should be unfettered and borderless, a global commons. That didn’t last. China’s President Xi Jinping has led the way in asserting what’s become known as cybersovereignty — a nation’s right to control the digital realm. Other authoritarian regimes such as Russia’s and Vietnam’s, but also governments in places such as India and France, are following suit. With America’s more hands-off approach under fire for enabling election meddling, fake news and hate speech, China is trumpeting its method of controlling the internet to serve state interests.
Being sovereign means having the power to set the rules. Applied to cyberspace, it means a government controlling how the internet is used within its borders and what happens with the data generated. China coined the term and imposed what’s known as the Great Firewall, which censors online discourse and can scrub sensitive historic events — like the 1989 Tiananmen massacre in Beijing — from online records. The government also limits which news sites, search engines, shopping portals and social-media platforms are available to users and what apps can be downloaded. Under a 2017 law, China also requires electronic data to be stored in-country and be accessible on demand to the authorities.
How is it enforced?
To get online, consumers in China are restricted to using state-owned carriers, which must toe the party line. Websites like Facebook and Google are banned outright. China began blocking Facebook’s WhatsApp encrypted messaging service, used by over 1 billion people around the world, in 2017. (Homegrown rival WeChat, owned by Tencent Holdings Ltd, is unencrypted.) Online gaming is restricted. The government reviews new titles to vet content; video game approvals were frozen for months in 2018, hammering the shares of gaming companies. Even the #MeToo movement fell victim, with the Communist Party taking measures to stop a growing wave of accusations of sexual misconduct being circulated online.
Who else is doing it? Some recent examples
Russian lawmakers passed a “sovereign internet” bill allowing authorities to manage internet traffic nationwide and, if needed, cut it off from the outside world. The new legislation also could make it easier for Moscow to stifle communication during times of civil unrest or disrupt encrypted messaging apps. Russia already censors a variety of topics online and blocks foreign companies like LinkedIn and Zello that don’t locate servers inside the country. India’s central bank requires payment firms like Mastercard and Visa to store data exclusively on local servers, a rule that could be expanded under a broader e-commerce policy being considered.
In Southeast Asia, home to more than half a billion people whose internet economy is expected to triple to $240 billion by 2025, autocratic regimes in Vietnam and Thailand are passing laws mirroring China’s model of content curbs and data controls. The French National Assembly formed a task force in April 2018 to examine ways to protect against not only cyber attacks but growing dependency on foreign technology companies, after a French Senate report warned France and the European Union were at risk of becoming “digital colonies.” Freedom House’s 2018 report on digital authoritarianism noted that China, which it called the worst abuser of internet freedom, hosted representatives from 36 countries at training sessions on handling new media or information management.
Is cybersovereignty about security or censorship?
Cybersovereignty enables both censorship — the suppression of information for political or other purposes — and cybersecurity, the protection of things like transportation systems, electrical grids and personal information. Xi, who chairs China’s top cyber-administrative regulator, has repeatedly underscored the importance of building independent cyberspace that foreign powers can’t disrupt, as the foundation for China’s national security. President Vladimir Putin described Russia’s new legislation as a response to the threat of surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency.
Why is the data vital?
Today’s digital world generates far more information about individuals than ever before, so-called “big data” that can be parsed, analyzed and then exploited. Companies use the data to target advertising, hone their products or develop “deep learning” algorithms. The Chinese government uses such data to keep tabs on its citizenry — companies are required to hand it over if requested. Thailand’s new law grants the government the right to seize data and electronic equipment without a court order in the interests of national security. India has made concerted efforts to safeguard its own digital assets, including legislative measures to keep information and data from flowing out from the country, partly to help domestic startups.
Are there ways around cyber controls?
Virtual private networks, known as VPNs, can be used to circumvent internet restrictions. Beijing has clamped down on VPNs, which exist in a legal gray area, but they are widely used elsewhere. Greatfire.org, a non-profit group that opposes censorship, has created mirrored sites and a browser to get around China’s restrictions. Telegram Messenger LLP dodges attempts by authorities in Moscow to block its use in Russia by constantly changing IP addresses. Even many Kremlin officials are still using the messaging app.
Where is this headed?
Ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt has predicted that within a decade, the internet will split in two, with one led by the U.S. and the other by China. A big test will be the global expansion of Chinese tech titans such as Tencent and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd, which developed and flourished within China’s authoritarian model.