Many Americans celebrate the Internet as a platform for freedom, expression and social change. But savvy use of the Internet does not necessarily lead to mass mobilization, as it can be used by the government to prevent civil mobilization, as is done in China.
On Friday, the Federal Communications Commission will begin regulating the Internet as a utility. This action signals how the United States is shifting toward the Chinese approach to using the Internet as a government tool to monitor and channel public opinion.
While many like to think of the Internet as a “bottom-up” system, in China it is “top down” or government allowed. This situation was already described in 1998 in “A Not-So World Wide Web: The Internet, China, and the Challenges to Nondemocratic Rule.”
The Chinese government owns the network infrastructure, dictates the terms on which individuals and enterprise can access it, and regulates the data that flow across it. This is similar the Title II framework recently imposed by the FCC that defines rate regulation, oversight by regulatory agencies and state utility commissions, access conditions, and traffic management.
There is no doubt that the Chinese Internet is an increasing force in the world. Its home-grown and government-sanctioned versions of Google (Baidu), Facebook (QQ, Tencent), WhatsApp (WeChat), and Amazon and Ebay, (Taobao, Aliaba) prove that openness is not the only path to innovation. Not only do a number of these sites rank highly in revenue and visitors, but many of them increasingly serve Americans in English language versions.
“China is not on the Internet; it’s basically an intranet,” note Sharman So and Christopher Westland in their book “Red Wired: China’s Internet Revolution.”
They describe the Chinese Internet as an isolated entity, supported by the Golden Shield Project, also known as the “Great Firewall” of China, a surveillance and censorship project created by the Ministry of Public Security in 1998 and officially sanctioned in 2003.
China outlined its approach in the infamous White Paper on the Internet in China. Published in 2010, it critiqued the discourse from former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Internet freedom.
The paper identifies the Chinese Internet as a pillar for the “national economy” and that it must be protected from “hostile forces.” It’s not hard to understand why Google withdrew its servers from mainland China after its publication.
The paper also describes the Chinese government’s discontent with Internet governance and its skepticism of multi-stakeholder institutions such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which it characterizes as too close to the U.S. government, lacking in transparency and accountability, and lacking legitimacy as an international institution.
The 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunication in Dubai saw China aligning with Russia in a “digital cold war.”
On one side, China and Russia led the group wanting to strengthen the International Telecommunication Union with a greater role for national governments, asserting, “Member States shall have equal rights to manage the Internet, including in regard to the allotment, assignment and reclamation of Internet numbering, naming, addressing and identification resources, and to support for the operation and development of the basic Internet infrastructure.”
On the other side were the United States and its allies — including the European Union, Japan, Canada and Australia, which supported multi-stakeholder governance of the Internet and refused to participate in a vote that would put more control of the Internet into the hands of authoritarian governments.
With the revelations about National Security Agency surveillance and hacking of Chinese companies by undercover American operatives, the United States suffered a major blow to its credibility. Indeed, it was not a coincidence that activities of the China-U.S. Cyber Working Group were suspended.
In January, China together with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, the Russian Federation, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan submitted a letter to the United Nations proposing a new international code of conduct for information security. The rising role of China as an Internet governance prominent actor was also confirmed by the organization of the first Internet Conference in Wuzhen, China, last December.
These examples confirm the role of the Chinese government supporting a new Internet governance, which actually challenges the American status quo.
The FCC is undermining America’s credibility even further. The FCC’s “Open Internet” order empowers the agency to monitor networks proactively, a practice that supports authorities’ efforts to maintain power and censor the Internet.
Moreover the FCC’s assertion of jurisdiction over the Internet is just the sort of move that authoritarian governments welcome to justify their efforts to control the Internet in their country under the guise of making it “free and open.”
There’s a hope that Congress can correct the misguided path of the FCC. Otherwise the United States can no longer claim to be superior to China in Internet governance. By regulating the Internet under Title II, the United States is only following in China’s footsteps.