By Molly Henry

With the Internet being the world’s key platform for communication and social organization, existing conflicts between democratic and authoritarian governments now extend to questions of internet governance and users’ rights. The Biden administration’s foreign policy is expected to address the defense of human rights and free speech in cyberspace, with a “Summit for Democracy” planned for later this year. 

In contrast to the United States’ focus on internet freedoms, Russia and China argue for a “cyber sovereignty” model instead. Both states have the authority to control and monitor citizens’ internet data to strictly enforce national laws regulating private speech, the media, and the ability to organize politically. Russian and Chinese alignment on the concept of digital authoritarianism represents a worrying trend in internet governance.

A new type of Internet

Russia and China have recently strengthened technical and legal mechanisms to control online activity. China’s 2016 Cybersecurity Law and Russia’s 2019 Sovereign Internet Law have enacted new, more robust ways to censor, localize data, survey people, and criminalize online activity. These have been passed against the backdrop of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempts at centralizing power in their countries.

While similar, differences in both technology infrastructure and legal precedent separate the Chinese and Russian models of controlling internet usage. Not only does Russia lack the technical ability, form of internet infrastructure, and institutional resources to enact levels of control over people’s internet use akin to China’s “Great Firewall,” but Russian internet users are also accustomed to a relatively uncensored and international online experience. Compared to China, the Internet in Russia is less controlled and contains more vocal opposition to the government by the media and public-at-large. 

In the past five years, Russia and China have signed several bilateral agreements to cooperate on technology and internet governance. In 2015, the countries agreed to work together within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and United Nations to protect the principle that “the state has the sovereign right to define and implement public policy on matters relating to information and telecommunications [including the internet].” In 2016, the two countries’ joint statement on the regulation of “information space” included the “principle of respecting national sovereignty in information space.” A 2019 bilateral treaty on internet governance laid the foundation for cooperating on censorship and managing online content. Both countries have also supported U.N. working groups that include cyber sovereignty principles when discussing internet governance and have objected to human rights-based U.N. initiatives supported by the United States and its allies.

Differing agendas

Despite formal agreements and shared interests regarding internet governance, substantive cooperation on technological development remains limited. Cyber sovereignty emphasizes self-sufficiency as a pillar of national security, and any cooperation over the Internet would undermine this central tenet. Pre-existing protectionist policies on domestic technology further limit technological interdependence. 

This conflict is particularly apparent in the development of hardware and network infrastructure. While China is an international leader in telecommunications and 5G development, Russia is cautious about collaborating with the Chinese government to improve its network architecture over fears that it presents a national security risk. Following this line of reasoning, the most ambitious proposals for technological cooperation have not been put into practice, and joint programs and research agreements have focused on less sensitive fields. 

Another point of contention between the two countries, outside of domestic development, are their conflicting policies towards external cyber-related activities. China has generally sought to maintain stable economic and diplomatic ties with the United States and has been more concerned with creating space for alternative governance models and institutions rather than disrupting the existing ones. While China’s pattern of intellectual property theft has proven controversial, it has also entered more multilateral and bilateral agreements on cyber policy than Russia. Both Russia and China engage in digital intelligence gathering, but Chinese hackers tend to focus on corporate rather than political targets and take a more covert approach that is difficult to attribute

A worrying future

However, incentives around online propaganda and public opinion have shifted. China has become increasingly active in the global information space, borrowing from the Russian model of harassing foreign critics and promoting favorable narratives on English-language social media. For example, in the spring of 2020, Twitter and the messenger service platform, WhatsApp, saw a proliferation of accounts that were traceable to Chinese intelligence agencies and dedicated to defending the Chinese government.

Despite limits on substantive bilateral cooperation, Russian and Chinese attitudes towards controlling and monitoring internet access could appeal to authoritarian governments around the world. There already seem to be signs of digital convergence between the two countries. Russian lawmakers and regulators have started discussions around enacting harsher domestic internet controls, which could mean Chinese-style censorship or, more likely, using blunt tools similar to the August 2019 Moscow internet shutdown. Recent opposition protests in Russia prompted authorities to briefly disrupt internet connectivity in major cities in late January.

Conclusion

The Democratic Party platform expresses support for human rights protections on the Internet, yet internet governance remains a weakness in U.S. foreign policy. It is revealing that the aforementioned democracy summit will call for private technology and social media companies to “make their own commitments” to avoid complicity in human rights abuses, indicating the outsized influence corporations have on cyberspace. In the wake of recent acts of violence at the U.S. Capitol, there is an urgent need for precise and transparent measures to protect user privacy and free speech rights while combatting misinformation, hate speech, and violence. Tackling the concept of cyber sovereignty involves defining and promoting a model of internet freedom that uses domestic and international law to strengthen the democratic potential of the Internet rather than force it to conform to national borders. 

Molly Henry is an Asian Studies graduate student at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. Her research interests include U.S.-China relations and the politics of news media in China, including state-run and social media.

Photo courtesy of Matti Blum.