The internet was originally designed as an information sharing system, one which could connect thousands of doctors, historians, professors, and everyday people with a library of information detailing human experience and knowledge. Such a tool was originally conceived by one of its inventors, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, to be a tool for freedom of information and democracy. However, not every nation that developed internet capabilities has adopted this view. Rather than viewing the internet as characterized by freedom, countries like China instead view the internet as a realm of government control. This dichotomy is well described by Eric Schmidt, an ex-google CEO, when he described the future of the internet, saying, “I think the most likely scenario now is not a splintering, but rather a bifurcation into a Chinese-led internet and a non-Chinese internet led by America.” However, these differing perceptions are not clashing in the classroom or on the battlefield. Instead, the war for the global consensus regarding the internet is being fought in soft-power, through subtle acts of influence and partnership in nearly every developing nation across the globe.
In America, we often take internet freedom for granted. Ideas like net neutrality, freedom of expression, and digital privacy are widely accepted and often even espoused by our government. Consequently, we believe that no single entity, government or private, should have unilateral control over the internet. This belief has been coined by some as “multistakeholderism,” meaning that no one entity should be the single stakeholder in internet governance. However, not every nation embraces this general view of the internet as a free space. In many ways China is providing the paradigm alternative to multistakeholderism with their view of “cyber sovereignty.” This view was explained by Chinese President Xi Jinping at the 2015 World Internet Conference in Wuzhen as “…respecting each country’s right to choose its own internet development path, its own internet management model, and its own public policies on the internet and to equal participation in international cyberspace governance.” This view means that government’s should have the absolute ability to determine what internet access looks like for their citizens, including the filtering of information as seen in China’s “Great Firewall.” Because of this authoritarian view of the internet, China is ranked as the least free internet country in the world according to Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2020.
China’s “Great Firewall” is not constrained behind China’s borders. China is exporting this view to the developing countries it works with through infrastructure projects like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Digital Silk Road (DSR). This goal was made explicit in an article from the Cyber Administration of China (CAR) in 2017 which was analyzed by the University of Pretoria’s Professor Gravett when he wrote that “Most disconcertingly with reference to the future in Africa the article states that the explicit aim in ‘strengthening international exchanges and cooperation in the field of information technology and cybersecurity’ is ‘to push China’s proposition of Internet governance toward becoming an international consensus’.”
A key case study in the global expansion of cyber sovereignty is Africa, where China’s digital infrastructure presence is dominant, having constructed 70% of 4G infrastructure and leading the continent’s implementation of 5G. This expansive influence over African internet infrastructure has already led to African nations embracing the Chinese model of cyber sovereignty as Chinese firms have no qualms with enabling authoritarian behavior. Such enabling was highlighted by the Wall Street Journal in their investigation of Huawei’s involvement in the Ugandan government’s spying on political opponents. With an official from a Uganda Police Department going as far as to say that “They [Huawei’s technicians] teach us to use spyware against security threats and political enemies.”
Uganda is not the only country embracing a more authoritarian stance on the internet. As reported by Reuters, a study from the African Digital Rights Network (ADRN) found 115 instances of internet control or censorship across South Africa, Cameroon, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Nigeria, Zambia, Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia and Egypt, and that “The number of intentional internet shutdowns by African governments rose to 25 in 2020 from 21 in 2019, with Algeria, Ethiopia and Sudan the worst-affected countries, said the study.” Consequently, many African nations are continuing to embrace the cyber sovereignty model advocated for by China. This is especially concerning as Africa represents 17% of the World’s population but has very limited internet access. Thus, as China continues to construct the internet infrastructure for nearly a fifth of the world’s population, the more likely that they will develop this conception of the internet.
There is a war waging for the world’s perception of the internet. However, the United States is not fully engaged in it because it often does not fully realize the worldview implications of Chinese internet construction. Too often, America focuses on the security or economic implications of Chinese telecom companies expanding their global footprint while ignoring China’s authoritarian worldview and the implications of countries adopting such a worldview when offered internet access from the Chinese government. If the United States wants to prevent cyber sovereignty from becoming a consensus among developing nations, it must either offer an alternative to Chinese telecoms or instruct the leaders of developing nations in the importance of a free internet characterized by a lack of centralized control.