China's White Paper on the Internet and Internet Sovereignty

By: Alex Fayette on 25 June 2010
Posted in China, Asia

In the wake of China’s first white paper on the Internet, a new idea has emerged that has been receiving little press, but deserves substantial discussion and debate. This idea is national Internet sovereignty.

The new concept creates a second half to the total picture of Internet sovereignty, yet each half is mutually exclusive. The the first half of this picture, global Internet sovereignty, is in itself nothing new of course. One of its philosophical roots can be irrefutably tied to John Perry Barlow’s 1996 Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace.

“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. 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.”

This ideal of an Internet that controls itself, separate from the political underpinnings of any one nation, has never actually come into being. Many Internet regulations have indeed been made into law by countless nations, each infringing on the vision of an overall Internet sovereignty, yet no nation has yet been bold enough to explicitly declare its own national sovereignty of the Internet…..that is, until now.

The second half of this big picture has been born from China’s bold claim to a national Internet Sovereignty in Section V of the white paper. It is sparking outrage, concern, but surprisingly not much discussion, as other parts of the white paper have taken more of the spotlight.

National sovereignty is an easy thing to imagine when it comes to a nation’s claim on land for instance. If one nation has sovereign control over a swath of land, they have total control. No other nation can infringe upon that land, or regulate it. But unlike physical land, it’s hard to imagine cyberspace being carved up into lots of little jurisdictions. Indeed, many Internet related laws impose restrictions on those using the Internet from within their physical borders, yet many of these laws still hold the concept of a global, more open Internet in mind. This white paper simply brings to a head the fact that China feels, as a Sovereign nation, that it should experience its “own Internet” rather than “The Internet”.

Many agree that just like the trade practices adopted through the WTO and its membership, which captures the vast majority of business transactions worldwide, the Internet should have some collective, unifying sets of ideals of what is right and wrong that is separate from any single sovereign nation’s perspective. In many ways like commercial trade, the Internet needs open terrain with limited nation-to-nation barriers if prosperity and fairness is to flourish. Ironically, there has been substantial push lately to have the censorship-driven Google pull-out of China be levied for filing a WTO complaint against China.

So why does the Chinese government feel the need to declare sovereignty?

The main argument for national Internet sovereignty, as taken from the Chinese white paper, is for the secure flow of information. In today’s world, cyber security is a pressing issue of course, but this white paper fails to define exactly what the Chinese government feels qualifies is a legitimate concern of security. The overall sentiment of the paper does not point to fears over events such as DDoS attacks or other traditional cyber security threats. So is it a threat that could destabilize the networks in China, or is digital pornography also counted as a “Security threat” to the Internet? Considering the past actions of China, it isn’t hard to envision either or both kinds of content being labeled as an issue of national security.

An additional complication that stems from this Chinese envisage of national Internet sovereignty is transnational interactions. Similar to the challenges faced by Google as it chose to remove itself from the Chinese market, a question of whose laws to apply becomes fuzzy if every nation is recognized as totally sovereign with their Internet. If two nations have two different overall Internet legal schemes, one that is more restrictive and one that is less so, should the digital interaction between them default to the more restrictive or less restrictive rules of the two?

Of course, it’s understood that if you are operating in a foreign country, you must operate under the laws present in that country. By China declaring its Internet sovereignty though, it not only feels free to make whatever laws it has a whim for, but also asserts that there is no higher rationale nor moral/just order to answer to if they create globally-viewed, abusive policies.

Ultimately, the spead of the notion of national Internet sovereignty can only lead to information barriers and isolation. It seems that the Chinese government enjoys this idea of sovereignty, but the people whose lives are affected by it may disagree. Do the Chinese people want a global Internet, or a national, sovereign one? As the prospect of WTO complaints against China become more real with each passing day, we can only hope that the people of China receive the information on both sides of the argument for national Internet sovereignty, and that they can influence the decision for themselves.

Judging on past Internet policy in China though, it’s doubtful that this optimism will be fulfilled.