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Chinese forum exposes cracks in the internet that could splinter wide open

·5-min read

A yearly internet forum in China, home to the “Chinese Firewall” and known for its massive restrictions of its domestic internet, underlines the fact that the idea of a truly global internet for all does not have much chance to ever being realized. Recent actions by India and the US risk fracturing the World Wide Web even more.

It sounds idealistic: “building a community with a shared future in cyberspace”, the slogan of the Wuzhen Internet Conference 2020, its official site supported by a flashy videos, proclaims. “Countries [should] follow the trend of the times,” the site explains, “shoulder responsibility for development … and jointly promote global governance in cyberspace.”

The three-day forum focuses primarily on technology, with discussions on “Belt and Road cooperation in cyberspace” and “youth and digital future.”

But the Wuzhen conference hides deep fault lines that run through the internet and indicate that those fault lines are about to split wide open.

The Wuzhen event, held near the picturesque fishing village of the same name, is now in its sixth year an showcases “cutting-edge scientific and technological achievements in areas technology areas like artificial intelligence, cloud computing, big data, blockchain and 5G,” according to the state-controlled website China.org.cn. Many of the meetings take place online, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

"We remain committed to building an international platform for connecting China and the world, and a Chinese platform for an internet, shared and governed by all," Zhuang Rongwen, minister of the organizer, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) was quoted as saying.

The main goal of CAC and the Wuzhen conference? Presenting the world with an “alternative” way to administer the WWW.

In 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that while "China is ready to work with other countries to deepen international cooperation,” the “sovereignty of the Internet” should be respected, and governments should work on an “international internet governance system.”

In practice, this means that while “the internet provides individuals with greater freedom to speak and share information,” this cannot be a free-for-all, according to Beijing.

“The public should also be responsible for their speech and conscientious about disseminating information that will harm the country's development,” according to the pro-China’s Communist Party newspaper Global Times. "Measures must be taken to prevent “rumormongering” that can “harm the nation," it added.

Government scrutiny

Today, it is increasingly clear what China’s “internet governance model” stands for. Some aspects may find echoes in Western calls to break up internet giants such as Google, Facebook and Amazon. The Wuzhen event takes place as the China’s own internet giants, including Alibaba, Tencent Holdings and Meituan face increasing government scrutiny.

Earlier this month the planned $37 billion share market listing of Alibaba affiliate Ant Group was suspended after regulators warned its lucrative online lending business faced tighter scrutiny.

Alibaba’s e-commerce marketplaces and payment services are also expected to face greater oversight under the draft rules published on 10 November by China’s State Administration for Market Regulation, which said it wanted to prevent platforms from dominating the market or from adopting methods aimed at blocking fair competition.

World Wide Web worries

But apart from commercial concerns, Wuzhen comes at a time when internet censorship in China went into high gear.

The World Wide Web, the user friendly interface of the internet created by Tim Berners-Lee and Cern in 1989 was meant to connect people world wide and without restrictions.

But China already issued regulations to restrict access to the internet in 1994, one full year before even the first Chinese citizen could log in. Other authoritarian regimes, such as Vietnam, Iran and Cuba followed the Chinese example.

When the cyber gates opened wider, China quickly grew into the largest internet user concentration in the world. But Chinese cyberspace was restricted by a net of growing rules and regulations, software filters, culminating in the Great Chinese Firewall, defending "malignant outside influence" with a "golden shield,"project initiated by ... the CAC, that also organizes the Wuzhen Internet conference."

Meanwhile, cyber police monitors and censors any message that is unwanted by the government, and hunts down people who post comments critical of the Communist Party, while making internet-related “crimes” punishable with long jail terms.

Splinternet?

And while China and other centrally controlled states increasingly compartimentilise the internet, the general idea of “universality” of the WWW was further hampered with growing concerns that Chinese applications were ‘snooping up’ private user data.

In April, anti-Chinese internet frenzy reached a boiling point when user of popular video app TikTok claimed that it radically invaded privacy.

The user, who posted his “analysis” on Reddit under the name ‘Bangorlol’ said that TikTok snooped up hardware IDs, memory usage, apps installed, IP addresses, Wi-Fi access points, GPS pings at a temporal resolution of 30 seconds.

True or not, the Indian government, already entangled in an increasingly tense border dispute with China, banned TikTok and 58 other Chinese applications. One month later, the hammer fell when US President Donald Trump issued an executive order aimed at eventually banning TikTok and its owner ByteDance Ltd.

Tim fights back

Meanwhile, WWW founder Tim Berners-Lee has turned himself into an activist fighting government restrictions imposed by governments for whatever reasons when he published his “Contract for the Web” that aims to “ensure everyone can connect to the internet,” while “all of the internet” should be kept available “all of the time”. This means that companies and governments must “respect and protect people’s fundamental online privacy and data rights.”

To date, the “contract” is endorsed by 563 companies dealing with the internet, including China-based companies such as YQTC Tech.