No wonder Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) are smiling: They are closer than they have ever been to mastering who is saying and doing what online. They and other authoritarian leaders are watching with glee as US intelligence agencies destroy what is left of the original utopian vision of a cyberspace free of government control.
The process was under way long before Edward Snowden revealed the extent of surveillance by the US National Security Agency (NSA). However, the allegations of mass monitoring of hitherto friendly political leaders, businesses and ordinary Internet users around the world have stoked a backlash with worrying consequences.
Slowly but surely, governance of the Internet is moving from the existing mishmash of institutions and into the hands of national governments. The Chinese call this “cyberautonomy.”
Authoritarian regimes are showing ever-greater confidence in restricting information, filtering, blocking, monitoring and punishing anyone who steps over the mark. During a recent visit to Beijing — attending a seminar on new media at the Central Party School — I was given a remarkable insight into official thinking.
The issue is one of the most sensitive in China, going to the heart of the Chinese Communist Party’s hold on power. With up to 600 million netizens — spending hours every day on Weibo micro-blogging sites and the messaging service WeChat — is it still possible to control the message? The party believes it can.
The exhortations were colorful: I was told that China needed to help people “show responsibility and reasonableness” and to “harmonize the public and private persona, to minimize public confusion.”
After Xi’s call to “seize the ground of new media,” a law was introduced in September to punish “wrongful rumors” online. Content that is re-posted more than 500 times or viewed more than 5,000 times could land the author in jail for up to three years. A number of well-known bloggers have since been arrested.
Reports say that China has an estimated 2 million “Internet opinion analysts” tracking content. The boundaries for acceptable and unacceptable information are subjective. It may be patriotic to report on the corruption of certain officials; to cast aspersions on others could be a crime. Chillingly, I was told that the party is looking at an “explicit protocol to provide for future discipline requirements.”
Given the penalties, harassment and deliberate vagueness of the boundary lines, it is remarkable that so many ordinary Chinese are as outspoken as they are. They have more to fear now than ever before.
In Russia, alongside the violence meted out to journalists — making it one of the most dangerous places for investigative reporters to operate — new laws instigated under the guise of child protection allow the authorities to close down sites immediately and force the big service providers to block access.
Other countries have imposed their own rules to promote “responsibility” and “stability.”
In Singapore, new licensing regulations require news Web sites with more than 50,000 unique visitors a month to pay a deposit, then comply with takedown orders within 24 hours.
The credibility of the US to proselytize about individual rights online is pretty much shot. Its attempts to preserve the existing system of Internet governance have been similarly undermined.
Until now, a number of organizations have shared responsibility: groups with an alphabet soup of acronyms, from ICANN (Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers, a US-based not-for-profit organization that assigns domains) to IGF (Internet Governance Forum, which brings together companies, civil society groups, governments and techies for an annual week of discussions on the future of the net).
At the recent IGF in Indonesia the Chinese were, for the first time, out in force. One “expert” offered to explain to a US Department of State official why US human rights standards are not up to scratch and how China could help.
Gatherings such as these are often cumbersome, but they have the benefit of being open to all voices — multi-stakeholder in geek jargon. All this could change. Moves are afoot to give a long-established, but previously low-profile UN organization — the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) — jurisdiction over the Web. The ITU is the preserve of governments alone.
It is not just the Chinese and Russians who are keen on this change. India, Brazil and South Africa are among a number of emerging powers that want to prize control away from groups considered friendly to the US and toward the ITU. The most recent move, in Dubai in December last year, narrowly failed. Thanks to the NSA furor, it will be easier next time.
Matters are likely to come to a head in April, when Brazil holds a special conference focusing on securing user privacy from the prying eyes of US and other intelligence services. One idea being mooted is to require Internet service providers to host data country by country, and thereby be answerable to local laws.
On the one hand, this could be seen as an understandable and laudable fightback, but the Balkanization of the net could also reinforce the control of nation states over global digital citizens.
US dominance of the Internet is being challenged on several fronts. US President Barack Obama’s administration and its spooks only have themselves to blame. It is just possible that recent events could usher in a new era of transparency and data protection.
However, do not bet on it. The direction of travel is more likely moving toward the authoritarians.
As one Chinese interlocutor put it to me: “We should cleanse negative information, which jeopardizes good order.”
John Kampfner is the former chief executive of Index on Censorship.
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