Wuzhen, China's futuristic town in the Zhejiang province, said hello and goodbye to the World Internet Conference last week. Many, of course, find it ironic that China—where the government blocks hundreds of foreign websites—hosted a summit about the World Wide Web, but local commentators seemed unfazed. Several speakers at the conference even argued that the outside world must accept China's confidence in its Internet regulations and understand that foreign businesses cannot profit in China without obeying local laws.
Conference attendees enjoyed special, temporary access to hundreds of blocked websites overseas. But throughout the rest of the country, the Chinese government stepped up censorship efforts. Edgecast, one of the world's largest content delivery networks (CDNs), experienced a DNS “poisoning” attack which left thousands of websites and mobile apps inoperable across China.
GreatFire.org, a website devoted to monitoring online censorship in China, claims the Chinese authorities are risking massive “collateral damage” by disrupting access to large numbers of apolitical sites in order to protect the state's sovereignty over the domestic network. For example, the attack on Edgecast inadvertently blocked Sony Mobile's global and Chinese sites, The Atlantic, Drupal.org, Gravatar, and others.
According to China's official media, hosting the Internet conference was an effort to “show confidence in sharing China's opinion on how to face online threats and how to enhance international cooperation online.” China's confidence, no doubt, comes largely from its enormous market of 632 million Internet users, 527 million of whom access the Web using mobile devices. Statisticians project there will be 850 million Internet users in China by 2015.
Many interpret China's Internet confidence to signal the country's growing determination to impose a Chinese approach to Internet governance worldwide. Su Xinghe, a Chinese commentator on tech news, says of China's new assertiveness:
Authoritarian power is good at using the Internet to monitor people. When compared with the United States’ loose control over the Net, China is more organized and disciplined. In the past 20 years, so many rules and regulations have been implemented [to restrict Internet service and content providers. Government authorities, including the State Administration of the Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television, keep issuing content-restriction directives and deleting “harmful information” on the Web. The distributors of harmful information are penalized. The development of Internet governance is far-reaching and this experience is valuable to other countries. […]
The Internet is considered to be at the forefront of China's ideological struggle. The rise of state-sponsored celebrities like Zhou Xiaoping and state-sponsored websites like “Phoenix” demonstrate that the authorities have launched a campaign to “occupy the Web” with the Chinese Communist Party's red tradition and “positive energy as praise” to help suppress anti-Chinese and Western values, like freedom and democracy. By controlling Internet resources and content platforms, the authorities fill the Web with the kind of content they want people to see, similar to the posters that covered every street corner during the Cultural Revolution. The objective is to brainwash people and use political pressure to make them submissive. Hosting the World Internet Conference, China's authorities can legitimize its practice in official language and further repress dissents.
In what was likely a Freudian slip, state-sponsored online celebrity Hua Qianfang praised China's “big-nation confidence” as “Sima Zhao's mind“, a Chinese idiomatic expression used to describe a hidden and immoral intention of usurping the throne or seizing power. During the World Internet Conference, many Chinese netizens repeated the idiom to mock the authorities’ hidden intention.
In Chinese, the whole expression reads, “Everyone on the street knows what's in Sima Zhao's mind.” The hidden intention is implied, and left unsaid. In fact, the director of China's State Internet Information Office, Lu Wei, told the China Digital Times:
Freedom and order are twin sisters, and they must live together […] The same principle applies to security. So we must have a public order [internationally]. And this public order cannot impact any particular local order. […] What we cannot permit, is the taking advantage of China’s market, of profiting from Chinese money, but doing damage to China. This will absolutely not be permitted. It is unacceptable to harm China’s interests, to harm China’s security, or to harm the interests of China’s consumers. Assuming respect for this bottom line any internet company is welcome in China.
The DNS attack on Edgecast and its “collateral damage” to thousands of business websites thus amounts to what Liu Wei says is China's determination to maintain “local order,” despite certain economic costs.
As China's role online grows and it becomes a key player in the shaping of global Internet governance, its approach to sovereignty still worries human rights activists. William Nee, a China researcher at Amnesty International, urged international business leaders to speak out about online freedom at the Conference, but the subject unfortunately didn't make the program.
As digital sovereignty continues to shape the future of Internet governance, it seems it will be left to local civil society to play a more significant role in China's fight for an open and free Internet.