Josh Gacutan | Cyber & Technology Fellow
In the past year, Western news outlets have quickly picked up on China’s efforts to break from the free, open, and global Internet. The Chinese Communist Party’s new Hong Kong national security law is forcing U.S.’s Big Tech companies to become complicit in the party's crackdown on dissent. Meanwhile, China’s main information-sharing platform, WeChat, censored a message by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison that criticised an inflammatory Tweet posted by a Chinese diplomat.
While these Internet governance developments certainly fracture the open spirit of the global Internet, the way they are often brought to light casts shadows over the trend whereby many democracies are shifting away from the open Internet Era.
The idea of cyber sovereignty–that governments should be permitted to control and contain their own Internet–has often been framed in outdated binary terms. On one side, liberal democracies led by the U.S. are said to champion the freedom and openness of a global Internet–and, by extension, denounce any dictates of any government over the Internet. On the other side, China, with the support of Russia and other authoritarian regimes, maintain the need to exert sovereignty over the Internet within their borders.
While presenting cyber sovereignty as a stark choice between competing libertarian and state-centric models may capture the authoritarian model of having sovereign and controlled Internets, such a dualistic representation limits our understanding of how many democratic states are also exerting control over their Internet.
In recent years, democratic states have been passing a growing palette of pro-security laws that arguably intrude on the freedom and openness of the global Internet.
In 2019, Australia’s “world-first” social media law passed through both houses of parliament in less than 24 hours (with no public or expert consultation) and imposed new penalties on online platforms such as imprisonment for failure to expeditiously remove violent content, such as the Christchurch massacre livestream. The law received widespread condemnation from the United Nations, internet rights organisations, the tech industry, and academics for its definitional ambiguities and impact on freedom of expression online as companies may likely err on the side of caution and take down material to avoid liability. As critics predicted, in the wake of the Christchurch massacre, several telecoms companies publicly apologised after blocking access to legitimate, non-infringing websites.
Abroad, India, Japan, the European Union, and the U.S. are considering the former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s proposal of “data free flow with trust”–which would allow them to design limits on global data flows (to restrict other states’ access) and share data with one another–despite previously condemning this practice.
In tandem, the U.S. based think-tank New America found that states that remain undecided on their approach to Internet governance–coined “digital deciders”–Israel, Singapore, Brazil, Ukraine, and India among others–have increasingly drifted towards a state-centric approach in recent years. In November 2018, for example, a Russian-sponsored cybercrime resolution–framed in terms of respecting countries’ sovereignty over the Internet–was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly and voted in by some of the largest democracies in the world–India, Brazil and Nigeria.
More recently, countries in the Indo-Pacific such as Vietnam and Thailand have been building their capacity for surveillance and censorship–often with the assistance of China and the U.S’s Big Tech companies. In October, the Thai government cracked down on more than 2,200 websites and social media accounts ahead of anti-monarchy protests and intruded into more relatively private online spaces by blocking pro-democracy protesters’ Tinder profiles.
As democratic states exert control over their Internet to safeguard their citizens and national security, they must recognise that these efforts also legitimise state-centric approaches to Internet governance. This is counterproductive to countering China and Russia’s vision for sovereign and controlled Internets in international policy settings.
How should liberal democracies respond?
With international laws and norms governing cyberspace in their early stages, democratic states must articulate the appropriate balance between total network openness (which allows anything through) and total network control (the authoritarian model), while preserving the liberal values of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.
Until democratic states communicate a holistic vision for Internet governance that preserves the benefits of the open Internet, more states will find the authoritarian model more compelling as the online environment continues to be exploited by malicious actors.
In addition, democratic states must do more to empower their cyber-diplomatic capacity. The next U.S. administration, for example, should appoint a National Cyber Director to coordinate the U.S.’s efforts on cyber and technology issues led by separate executive branch agencies, engage the private sector to advance shared priorities, and represent the administration at home and abroad on cyber.
Any form of inaction will mean ceding leadership to China, Russia, and other authoritarian regimes and give space for their vision for the Internet to flourish.
Josh Gacutan is the Cyber & Technology Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.