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How far can China push its bid to control the internet?

December 2015 saw the pretty coastal town of Wuzhen host the second ever World Internet Conference (WIC) – China’s attempt to refashion cyberspace in its own image and build a “Davos of the Internet”. President Xi Jinping attended, ramming home his message of “internet sovereignty” – that is, governments controlling their own bit of the internet, without any outside interference, thank you very much. It’s a somewhat chilling vision of the future, but one entirely consistent with China’s approach to censorship and online freedoms.

If anything, the event and Beijing’s increasingly uncompromising stance on such matters suggest things are going to get significantly harder for western tech firms in China in 2016.

 

A Third World conference?

Last year’s inaugural WIC saw a last-minute attempt by the organisers to get attendees to agree to a “declaration” calling on countries to respect internet sovereignty everywhere. It failed, but this year Beijing stepped up the pressure, wheeling out President Xi to do his best to shape opinion. A brilliant analysis of the event by former Guangzhou Southern Weekly hack, Fang Kecheng, translated here, shows how the language has now shifted to “multilateralism” – a euphemism for governments taking control of the internet – as opposed to the consensus-based “multi-stakeholder” approach supported by most Western democracies.

In that respect, it’s not surprising that the majority of international WIC attendees hailed from countries at the bottom of non-profit Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2015 list. The prime ministers of Russia, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were all slated to attend. The reality is that China is building a coalition of such nations, and others from the UN’s G77 group of developing countries, to get behind its vision. A joke doing the rounds at the event, according to Fang, is that it should probably have been called the ‘Third World Internet Conference’. 

“For their part, Chinese internet users came up with their own very vivid characterisation: ‘Buy a high-speed rail, we’ll throw in a national firewall free of charge” (买高铁送防火墙)’,” he added.

It’s hard not to agree with Amnesty International East Asia research director, Roseann Rife, who said in a statement: “Under the guise of sovereignty and security, the Chinese authorities are trying to rewrite the rules of the internet so censorship and surveillance become the norm everywhere. This is an all-out assault on internet freedoms.”

Yet there were also representatives from foreign tech companies. Apple, Facebook, Intel, and LinkedIn were all slated to attend, much to the anger of non-profits. Charlie Smith, co-founder of anti-censorship group GreatFire, argued these attendees “should be ashamed of themselves” and that by attending they were “complicit actors in the Chinese censorship regime.”

“If foreign guests think that by attending the conference they can help to free China’s internet then they are deluded,” he told The Hill.

 

What to do with a bully?

All of which reignites that thorny issue of what to do with China, if you’re a multi-national western technology firm. Can you afford not to have a presence in the Middle Kingdom – a nation of over 600 million internet users? Probably not. But in so doing you will need to comply with those pesky local laws, which could include censoring content or handing over IP to a local joint-venture partner. But, as Qualcomm has found, that’s no guarantee you won’t also be hit by massive fines, should the government decide to single you out at some point in the future.

The question is: just how far can China push it in 2016? LinkedIn has already taken a hefty hit to its reputation after complying with strict local censorship laws in China. Microsoft has been forced to sign a JV with the state-owned China Electronics Technology Group to "license, deploy, manage and optimise Windows 10 for China's government agencies and certain state owned enterprises." Like the Western diplomats unceremoniously pushed and shoved by foul-mouthed police outside the trial of press freedom advocate Pu Zhiqiang recently, non-Chinese tech firms are being treated with increasing contempt by Beijing. When does the bullying finally get too much?

China won a major victory at the UN’s influential World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) 10-Year Review recently when it managed to get included the word “multilateralism” – much to the chagrin of Western negotiators. What wasn’t widely reported was that China also lobbied hard to get the UN to remove phrases including “freedom of expression” and “democratic”. Are those ideals most Western technology firms would be happy espousing?

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Phil Muncaster

Phil Muncaster has been writing about technology since joining IT Week as a reporter in 2005. After leaving his post as news editor of online site V3 in 2012, Phil spent over two years covering the Asian tech scene from his base in Hong Kong. Now back in London, he always has one eye on what's happening out East.

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