Chinese Premier in Town as China Pushes for UN-type Governance of Internet


Chinese president Xi Jinping is visiting the U.S. with a heavy itinerary. One of his stops included a speech Tuesday given to business leaders in Seattle addressing a number of concerns about Chinese government practices regarding the economy.

According to The New York Times, Xi also promised “to work with the United States on fighting cybercrime, saying that the Chinese government was a staunch defender of cybersecurity.”

“The Chinese government will not in whatever form engage in commercial theft, and hacking against government networks are crimes that must be punished in accordance with the law and relevant international treaties,” Mr. Xi said in an address to American business executives.

President Obama shouldn’t take Xi’s words at face value. On top of the credible threat of cyberattacks out of China, the Chinese government has, like all authoritarian regimes sought to control the lives of their citizens through control of the internet. Now they are seeking to solidify control through a new proposal for governance of the internet.

What does that look like? Protect Internet Freedom explains it like this:

[The Chinese] envisioned a UN style structure that required each country respect the Internet sovereignty of others, where they had the power to demand that free nations respect the authoritarian denial of Internet access and accept restrictions on freedom-enhancing activities that they did not like. They see an opportunity to bring this vision to life through ICANN, an organization that typically handles website naming and coding languages.

Until recently, the United States government opposed this idea, but, as PIF notes, the Obama administration has signaled its interest in relinquishing control of ICANN.

For this reason, the Chinese government has begun to push for their goals, including submitting plans to the United Nations Public Administration Network, which included the following:

We should establish a multilateral, democratic, and transparent international Internet governance system that ensures equal participation of all, reasonable allocation of Internet resources, and joint management of key Internet infrastructure. A multi-stakeholder governance model that brings together governments, the private sector and nongovernmental organizations would be respected, all of which contribute in their own distinct way to the joint governance of the Internet. This model should not be lopsided, and any tendency to place sole emphasis on the role of businesses and non-governmental organizations while marginalizing governments should be avoided. The roles and responsibilities of national governments in regard to regulation and security of the network should be upheld. It is necessary to ensure that United Nations plays a facilitating role in setting up international public policies pertaining to the Internet. We should work on the internationalization of Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.

The Justice Department is not helping either. According to PIF, they recently “set a new, outstanding legal precedent by announcing that foreign governments can obtain customer data held in the U.S.”

They explain:

By that logic, China can demand that they review the information of a U.S. citizen’s email records, kept by a company located in the United States, and the law supports their authority to review it. It’s a global free-for-all, and it’s not looking for freedom of speech.

It should go without saying that governments and their values are not equal. It is dangerous to internet freedom and freedom in general to act as though expanding power to authoritarian regimes won’t have harmful effects.

Obama should take a stand for internet freedom while Xi is visiting. Will he? We’ll see.