How China and Russia are trying to undermine the Internet, again


A bank of TV sets during a live broadcast by Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk on April 17. (Reuters/Ilya Naymushin)

The last time the world got together to talk about how the Internet should work, China and Russia proposed making it easier for individual governments to control what their citizens can see on the Web. Now they're at it again, this time at a major international conference in Brazil.

The conference, known as NETMundial, is expected to produce a set of nonbinding, international principles that countries can use in their management of the Internet. The issue has grown more prominent lately as the United States signaled its intent to relinquish its largely symbolic role in overseeing the Web's global name and numbering system.

Unlike many of the other 180-odd proposals submitted by other countries and organizations, China and Russia are plainly preoccupied by how Internet governance could affect state authority.

"The incident with Snowden has demonstrated a complete lack of security and control," the Russian parliament wrote in its submission, without ever using the first name of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who leaked U.S. National Security Agency documents to the media.

Both countries are laying claim to a right to manage Internet affairs within their own borders. China professed its support for freedom of speech and search — but only to the extent that its own laws allowed:

… to fully respect rights and freedom in information space, including rights and freedom to search for, acquire and disseminate information on the premise of complying with relevant national laws and regulations…

This tracks closely with what China has said before about cyberspace, according to Adam Segal, a China and cybersecurity scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations. "This is official foreign policy," Segal said in an e-mail. "The first point in the [proposed] code of conduct points to the importance of national sovereignty. In the section you quote on freedom to search, the stress for China is not 'freedom' but 'relevant national laws and regulations.'"

China adds that states should refrain from using cyberweapons or from planting bugs in networking equipment sold to foreign governments, and suggests that public officials should "lead all elements of society" to cooperate with government on information security.

Russia also made a thinly veiled swipe at the United States, criticizing "the control of one government" over the Internet's addressing system.

"It worries the international community," the paper reads.

It's hardly a surprise that China and Russia would couch their proposals in terms that are favorable to their own governments. Even the United States' call for global, unfettered access to the Internet can be read with some irony: An open Internet is precisely what the NSA needs to effectively monitor its targets overseas.

Self-interest drives most international politics. This is your periodic reminder that it extends to the Internet, too.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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