The most recent World Internet Conference/Wuzhen Summit (WIC-Wuzhen) took place in Wuzhen China from November 7-9 of 2018.  This was the fifth iteration of an event intended to provide “an international platform for China and the world to communicate” and a “Chinese platform for sharing and co-governing the Internet.”  WIC-Wuzhen is China’s showcase to the world that it is a leader in Internet development and Internet policy.

This year’s conference covered an array of topics, but arguably the most policy-oriented session was the invitation-only roundtable entitled “Norms in Cyberspace: Practices and Explorations”.  Sponsored by the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and Wuhan University, this session featured no fewer than 24 participants, each who gave a brief presentation, followed by some general discussion.

The speakers came from around the world, although about half were Chinese, leaders of academic institutions, think tanks, and government ministries.  In addition to the two sponsoring Chinese academic institutions, there were representatives from the Law School of Beihang University, the Law School of Peking University, the Chinese Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), the Cyberspace Administration of China, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  Speakers from outside of China came from a UN Secretary General panel, Korea University, ICANN, the World Economic Forum, Keio University, the European Union, Belarus International Law and Arbitration Association, the EastWest Institute, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Georgia Institute of Technology (and the Internet Governance Project.)

With so many independent voices speaking in one forum, there was no single theme that animated all the speakers.  Still, a few important topics stood out, and those are identified here.

The intent of the panel was to keep abreast of new developments in cyberspace norms.  The previous year’s WIC-Wuzhen had focused on the process of norm-making, and this year’s session announced itself as focusing on the emerging practices and achievements.

Some early speakers noted that the leading Internet-using countries had countries had “consolidated their advantage” (the US) or developed major regulatory frameworks (the EU with the General Data Protection Regulations.)  Developing countries like China had to “join hands” in common activities to form norms for cyberspace.

More than one speaker noted recent undesirable developments in cyberspace.  Recently a “Cold War mentality” had picked up, and barriers to international cooperation were increasing.    Overall there is lack of trust among nations, even as the capability to inflict damage is increasing.  One speaker claimed that there were 40 nations with the capability to “take out” China [and presumably other major economies].  There is the risk of the “law of the jungle” in which rules of behavior are imposed by the most powerful.

A common refrain was that rules are needed.  Rules are needed to combat crime, to define and uphold rights and equality, and to promote international cooperation.  Without rules there is no good conduct; with rules it is possible to build a “community of a shared future.”

There is a need to recognize that cyberspace is real and cannot escape the bounds of the law.  Consistent with national policy positions, Chinese speakers emphasized cyber-sovereignty, consisting of supreme authority for regulating domestic society and an attitude of respect and non-intervention in international relations.

Even the US under the current administration had announced a more sovereignty-based approach, with President Trump at the UN declaring “The U.S. won’t tell you how to live…” [Although that same President recently informed the people of Venezuela that the US was effectively changing their president.]  Respect for national sovereignty allows for the development of different, contextually-appropriate norms in different societies.

Multiples speakers spoke favorably of the UN Group of Government Experts (GGE).  Prior GGE’s were useful trials in international cooperation and laid the foundation for responsible-conduct codes.  The process of norm-making is in a critical moment, and in 2019 the GGE is expected to move fast.

One speaker noted that this discussion was all too similar to that of last year’s WIC-Wuzhen.  What is needed to move beyond discussion and actually start making and implementing norms? Is a global crisis – a “digital Hiroshima” needed? What will pave the way for a global treaty?

Some speakers suggested more practical ways of developing norms. One speaker suggested starting with an emphasis on the single, important issue of security and focusing on specific, vitally important sectors.  Start with security in banking, healthcare, etc., and then scale up from there.  Another speaker thought that writing a treaty was too slow and too high-level. It would take ten years.  Again, a more pragmatic approach might be best. The speaker from the European Union also spoke favorably of the GGE as well as of the importance of confidence-building measures.  Even as countries cooperate in norm-making, however, they can strengthen their own resilience.

In summary, in this panel WIC-Wuzhen addressed the important issues of norm-making.  Clearly, the Chinese contributors favored traditional concepts of sovereignty, with national governments making domestic rules, and governments cooperating internationally to make higher-level rules.  Most of the other speakers, however, spoke favorably of such an approach.