The Global Trend Toward Cyber Sovereignty

Last month, as much of the world’s attention was elsewhere, the Chinese government announced their new cybersecurity law.  While the new law ostensibly was adopted to increase security, a range of features have been criticized by human rights and multinational corporations alike. Indicative of China’s push for cyber sovereignty complete government control of the internet within their borders — the law requires (among other things) network operators to disclose the identities of users and corporations to adhere to data residence requirements, including potentially turning over source code or information on Chinese citizens.  

These objectives were reiterated a few weeks later at the World Internet Conference (WIC) held in Wuzhen, China on November 16, which provided another platform for President Xi Jinping to reiterate his push for cyber sovereignty, saying that the “internet is the common home of mankind”, while also arguing that “we should respect the right of individual countries to independently choose their own path of cyber development”. Increasingly, cyber sovereignty is simply a Trojan horse for greater censorship, surveillance, and an infringement on civil liberties.

The demand for increased state control is by no means limited to China. Russia’s new cybersecurity doctrine signed on December 6th articulates its strategy of disinformation, while also similarly tying the growth of security threats to the necessity for stronger management and segmentation of the internet within Russia. To a lesser extent, this is also occurring in democracies. The U.K.’s Investigatory Powers Bill or the United States’ Rule 41 both grant additional monitoring and search capabilities to the government, alarming many civil rights groups. These are far less extensive than China’s new law or Russia’s doctrine, but they are indicative of the growing trend toward internet segmentation and monitoring. In their 2016 Freedom of the Net report released in November, Freedom House found an increase in global internet censorship coupled with the sixth consecutive year of decline in internet freedom. It should come as no surprise that this has all occurred as the United States’ soft power has declined over the last two decades, and liberal democracy has increasingly come under threat.

Aspirations of a free and open internet have guided the development of the internet for decades. This has happened organically thanks to technological innovation, grassroots movements, and the natural human thirst for information. Unfortunately, we are at an inflection point, and all of this is under attack. The next decade will be critical as over half the world’s population go online for the first time, but may encounter increasing restrictions, disinformation, and government control.  Absent a major push by the United States government and corporations - who have historically been the global advocate for internet freedoms -  global internet Balkanization, surveillance, and censorship may well define the future of the internet. 


Global Expansion of Cyber Sovereignty

As I wrote earlier this year, internet Balkanization is threatening the multi-stakeholder model which has fostered internet freedoms. The growth of cyber sovereignty is not limited to certain countries or regions; it is a global phenomenon. Predictions of the demise of the nation-state’s power were yet again short-sighted, as governments increasingly assert their control of the internet. In many regards, 2016 may well be viewed as a tipping point toward a Balkanization of the internet. To be clear, the growth of cyber sovereignty is not limited to the usual suspects - China, Russia, Iran, North Korea. As events of 2016 alone have demonstrated,  governmental internet control and intervention is much more widespread.

  • The attempted coup in Turkey: In an interesting twist, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, known for pro-censorship leanings, took to social media to call his eight million followers to take to the street to protest the attempted coup. His online appeal via FaceTime impacted the various opposition groups in a way unattainable through other media. Simultaneously, Erdogan may also have clamped down on social media during the coup and invoked censorship following the coup as part of his purge. Last month, Erdogan was back at it again, censoring social media to help suppress protests.
  • Brazilian ban of WhatsApp: For about 72 hours, fears of the increasing Brazilian censorship were confirmed with the ban on WhatsApp. This followed a similar ban in late 2015, as well as the imprisonment in March of a Facebook executive for refusing to hand over data.
  • Ethiopian drought and protests: Facing one of its worst droughts in 50 years, Ethiopia’s government strategically shut down internet service across the country, both to prevent future protests as well as to prevent coverage of ongoing protests, such as those in Oromia.
  • Global social media censorship: As the Freedom House report makes extremely clear, social media is under attack in various forms across the globe. In May, Vietnam blocked Facebook as a push to control protests over environmental damage caused by waste from a steel plant. Indonesia implemented its 2014 law to “promote safe and healthy use of the Internet” as justification for blocking both radical terrorist sites, as well as social media sites like Tumblr, and video sites like Netflix. The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission ordered the blocking of 35 news and social media sites, which followed the complete shutdown of the internet a few days earlier. And of course, Russia is an expert in this information control, but until blocking LinkedIn in November, had refrained from social media censorship.
  • Expanding spheres of influence: Of course, it would be naive to assume that many of these tactics used domestically would remain domestic. In Ukraine, which remained a target of the Russian propaganda machine (often referred to as trolls), social media and journalists faced increasing censorship and harassment (and, in at least one case, death) due to their reporting. China similarly extended its domestic tactics abroad, releasing its censorship trolls into Taiwan around the January election to attack Taiwanese independence via Facebook and other social media.
  • A Monopoly on (Dis)Information: A striking aspect across all of these examples is the integration of factual information with disinformation, as well as the blocking of information that projects negatively on the host government. The public now not only has to contend with gaining access to information, but once they do, it is increasingly difficult to separate fact from fiction (it’s perhaps fitting that Oxford Dictionaries names “post-truth” the 2016 word of the year). These governments are controlling the information narrative not only to solidify their own control, but also to increasingly extend their control of the narrative outside their own sovereign borders.


A Leadership Vacuum

We cannot take for granted that the internet will continue its trajectory of growth and expansion. As is increasingly evident, the internet is by no means void of interstate power politics, but is rather a growing venue for them.  The more plausible scenario is the billiard ball model of international relations, with self-interested states competing against each other. In fact, this is only going to grow in complexity as many state-proxies (including terrorist and criminal networks such as the Syrian Electronic Army) carry out state objectives, with a strong emphasis on control and censorship. Instead of a free and open internet, we are seeing the expansion of autarkic policies that not only impact human rights, but also harm the interconnected, global economy that spawned the largest decrease in global poverty in history.

All of this is occurring within a global leadership vacuum, leaving states with less than pure intentions rushing to fill the void. The US remains mired in decades-old conversations about encryption and information sharing, net neutrality is under attack, and global internet governance increasingly reflects the interests of the growing coalition of authoritarian states. All the while, US soft power continues declining, as many efforts purporting an open internet seem shallow at best and hypocritical at worst following the Snowden revelations and WikiLeaks.

This must change. Last month’s WIC was a missed opportunity for US corporations to speak out against China’s new law. There is simply too much at stake to allow authoritarian governments to fill this leadership vacuum with increased censorship, surveillance, and control. The United States cannot just mourn the demise of the internet, but must fight for it through international organizations, domestic policy, and, perhaps most importantly of all, by leading by example.

This is not only a concern for those two-thirds of the world’s internet users who are currently under censorship. Rather internet Balkanization is likely to shape geopolitics, the global economy, and human rights for decades to come. Unless the United States acts swiftly and forcefully to protect internet freedoms, cyber sovereignty may all too easily become the new norm. Despite its decline in soft power, the US has been the world’s strongest advocate for internet freedoms since the 1990s. If the US government and corporations do not advocate for the global diffusion of a free and open internet, who will?