China’s third annual World Internet Conference (WIC) ended on November 18, 2016. About 1,600 people attended the event, which is sometimes translated into English as the World Forum on Internet Governance. This second name makes clearer its attempt to become the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) answer to the multi-stakeholder UN Internet Governance Forum (IGF), which will be happening next week. China’s version of the IGF is an invitation-only, state-directed event where a few hand-picked big business executives rub elbows with provincial and national party officials.
Additionally, and more importantly, WIC provides China’s leaders with an opportunity to promote their state-led, sovereigntist vision of Internet governance to a global audience. For the second year in a row, Chinese President Xi Jinping gave the keynote address.
Last year, ICANN’s CEO Fadi Chehade and a few other western Internet community members got a lot of criticism for agreeing to serve on a high-level advisory committee for the WIC’s secretariat. The advisory committee includes Fang Binxing, the architect of China’s Great Firewall; a senior advisor to Iran’s ICT Ministry; the chairman of the Russian Safe Internet League; the 23rd Prime Minister of Pakistan, and the Secretary General of the Cyberspace Administration of China. We asked at that time, are Chehade and friends aligning themselves with China’s Great Firewall approach to Internet control? Or are they cleverly and pragmatically attempting to keep the doors to China open and so leaven the PRC’s repressive sovereignty with a more open perspective? Our opinion at the time was this:
There are dozens of ways for the rest of the world to engage with China, including in institutions like ICANN and the RIRs, without cooperating with WIC. Rather than contesting ideas on a terrain in which internet freedom, distributed control, bottom up initiative and openness have an advantage, they have foolishly chosen to play the conference diplomacy game on a terrain chosen by the Chinese Communist Party.
So who was right? Let the facts speak for themselves.
This was the first event in which the advisory committee was operative, yet there was no evidence of wider diversity and debate in the program. A local news account of the event (available in Chinese here) made clear China’s intention to use the forum to advance its sovereigntist view:
China put forward the idea that sovereign countries have the right to manage their own affairs within the country, sovereign states should be equal through the multilateral agenda for Internet governance, the United Nations and other multilateral mechanisms should play a greater role in the management of the Internet.
The address by Chinese President Xi Jinping again emphasized the Chinese model of Internet governance, which is to say, a return to the old model of post, telephone and telegraph governance. Clearly, the multistakeholder guys aren’t making any inroads here.
Aside from these official statements, China is succeeding in using WIC to discover and exploit useful innocents. David Kurt Herold, a German scholar who has studied Internet policy from the vantage point of Hong Kong, is quoted by the Chinese press as saying that “China’s model will be the most logical destination for countries to explore. Whether developed or developing, in Europe and the United States, consciously or unconsciously they will learn the Chinese government’s Internet management methods.” Paul Cornish, a Director of the Global Cybersecurity Competence Center at Oxford University, is quoted as saying that “many of China’s ideas are very similar to those of the international community, and China’s practice is equally useful for other countries, and we have a lot in common.”
A Kumbaya moment.
The value of these kinds of comments to the CCP cannot be overstated. In reality, Chinese internet policy is a reactionary, fear-driven and increasingly heavy-handed attempt to shelter a one party dictatorship from the full capabilities of open digital communications; it is also a form of protectionist economic nationalism. Instead of viewing Chinese internet policy for what it is, these polite comments from foreigners contribute to the carefully cultivated illusion that it is some kind of well thought out governance philosophy; just another “model” worthy of emulation by other countries.
In short, the status of WIC as a propaganda effort to promote state-centric Internet governance over transnational multistakeholder Internet governance has not changed a bit. We are not saying Chinese conferences or actors should be shunned. But at least enter into these arrangements with your eyes open.