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China Wants To Make The World Web Less Wide And Run Its Own Splinternet

The Great Firewall of China.

01/11/2017 12:19 PM AEDT | Updated 02/11/2017 10:12 AM AEDT
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"With fake news, hacking and foreign meddling outside of China, there's little doubt that China's internet regulators feel vindicated about their heavy-handed approach to regulating the internet."

The idea of a free and open internet has always been a chimera, a delusion that found its most infamous expression in John Perry Barlow's 1996 'A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace'.

"Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind," read the document's first words. "On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather."

The notion was always a naive one given that the "new home of the Mind" of cyberspace was built on investments from government agencies, namely the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Nonetheless, the techno-utopian idea managed to secure a particular purchase on the minds of many in the West. Twenty-one years later those hubristic words penned by the Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder and former 'Grateful Dead' lyricist have collided with a wall -- namely, the Great Firewall of China.

In his marathon 3.5 hour speech in Beijing's Great Hall of the People last week, President Xi Jinping underlined the Chinese Communist Party's rejection of the West's techno-libertarian model for the internet and outlined his goal for the middle kingdom to become a "cyber superpower".

Xi's vision includes accelerating the "deep integration of the Internet, big data, and artificial intelligence with the real economy," and calls for:

"... Intensifying cooperation in frontier areas such as digital economy, AI, nanotechnology, and quantum computing, and advancing the development of big data, cloud computing, and smart cities so as to turn them into a digital silk road of the 21st century."

While most of those advancements are yet to be realised, China has already perfected one piece of internet innovation -- its online censorship regime -- that it can already export to other authoritarian countries wishing to cut themselves off from the free and open internet.

It's a system that Xi made clear he intends to make even more effective and efficient.

"We will provide more and better online content and put in place a system for integrated internet management to ensure a clean cyberspace.

We will distinguish between matters of political principle, issues of understanding and thinking, and academic viewpoints, but we must oppose and resist various erroneous views with a clear stand."

Beijing's technical ability to construct its Great Firewall has its corollary in an approach to the digital economy and cyberspace that it now actively spruiks on the world stage -- 'Cyber Sovereignty'.

It's the idea that countries have the right to control the physical infrastructure and information flows of the internet within their own borders -- and it's in opposition to the U.S. multi-stakeholder internet governance.

Beijing's first attempt to sell the concept came in the dead of the night at the tail-end of the first state-sponsored World Internet Conference held in Wuzhen, Zhejiang province in 2014. At the time, organisers slipped a note under guests' hotel-room doors asking them to sign on to a declaration in support of China's principle of internet sovereignty. That ham-fisted attempt was scrapped after some foreign guests protested.

But with the next Wuzhen conference slated for later this year, organisers might be tempted to take a more direct approach. As the world watches the United States grappling with the fallout of Russia's cyber-meddling in the 2016 presidential election, the idea of traditional nation-state borders having a digital equivalence may seem more enticing.

With mounting evidence of fake news, hacking and foreign meddling outside of China, there's little doubt that China's internet regulators at the Cyberspace Administration of China feel vindicated about their heavy-handed approach to regulating the internet.

But as I wrote last month in The Strategist, by increasing top-down controls on the internet in China, Beijing's over-zealous censors run the risk of killing off the feedback-loop function that the internet and social media has served for the Chinese state in recent years.

As the fracture lines in the global internet deepen, President Xi has made it clear he wants to rectify "imbalances" in how internet standards are set, and thinks every country should have the right -- and the ability -- to ring-fence its own internet space.

Without a countervailing policy response from the West, pressure on other countries to sign up to the concept of 'cyber sovereignty' is set to continue, making a 'splinternet' future seem inevitable.

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