LAST WEEK brought a positively Orwellian moment to the debate about Internet freedom. Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke at a state-organized Internet conference in Wuzhen, in Zhejiang province, where he was once party secretary. Mr. Xi declared, “As in the real world, freedom and order are both necessary in cyberspace.” He added, “Freedom is what order is meant for, and order is the guarantee of freedom.” These slogans are more than just propaganda from the leader of a country with the world’s largest Internet censorship operation. Behind them lurks a dangerous ambition.
In China today, there is no Internet “freedom,” if the word means freedom to visit Facebook, Google or other vast stores of online information that are blocked off by the authorities and their Great Firewall. On vibrant social media, China’s 670 million online users can often find a way to be heard, if fleetingly, but a sustained challenge to the ruling power of the Communist Party is invariably squelched. Mr. Xi talking about “freedom” is like saying black is white. His words were live-tweeted by Xinhua, China’s official news agency, and posted on YouTube, even though Twitter and YouTube are blocked for most people in China.
The real danger in Mr. Xi’s remarks is the word “order,” because he envisions not only politeness but also obedience. In China, the party-state sets the rules that determine what Internet users can see and say, and they have been tightened recently. Having established “order” within the walls of China, Mr. Xi has increasingly promoted it as a model of “Internet sovereignty” for the rest of the world, saying that each nation should set its own rules for the Internet within its boundaries.
Russia has been heading in the same direction for several years as President Vladimir Putin attempts to extinguish any serious opposition. The security services in Russia have direct access to the Internet through a physical monitoring system. In July 2014, Russia adopted a law requiring that citizens’ data be stored on Russian soil and, therefore, subject to monitoring. This is a challenge to Facebook, which has tens of millions of users in Russia, as well as to other tech giants such as Apple and Google. Compliance with the Russian law has not been enforced yet, but there are reports that it may begin in January. The companies should resist the effort. An online petition drive directed at the leaders of the tech companies has garnered more than 42,000 signatures with the appeal “Don’t move personal data to Russia!”
China and Russia have both attempted in recent years to nudge global Internet governance toward their misguided “sovereignty” model, so far without a lot of success. But as Mr. Xi’s speech suggests, they haven’t given up. And they won’t. The digital revolution has delivered a truly global information superhighway. This powerful and remarkable invention must not be squandered or put in the hands of those who would use it to stifle free speech, freedom of association and human rights.