Freedom House released its annual “Freedom on the Net” report on Thursday with the subtitle “The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism.” This process, it argues, is driven in part by Beijing’s determined efforts to export its vision and tools of online control and pervasive surveillance.
According to Freedom House, global internet freedom has been in decline for eight consecutive years, and China itself has by some margin the worst internet freedom score of all the countries assessed. It is one of only two countries, together with Egypt, to have adopted all nine of the study’s “Key Internet Controls”: blocking of platforms and content; deliberate disruption of communications; manipulation of online discussion; new laws or directives tightening controls; arrest, imprisonment, prolonged detention, or physical attack or harm as retaliation for political or social content; and technical attacks against critics or rights organizations. The report points to surveillance and “re-education” in Xinjiang, the nationwide development of a social credit system, and official ambitions in the field of artificial intelligence as areas of particular concern within China.
It focuses more, however, on the growing international spread of this “China Model of Internet Control” through vectors such as the Belt and Road Initiative. Of the 64 other countries surveyed, Freedom House found sales of Chinese telecom infrastructure to 38; of AI surveillance tools to 18; and provision of new media or information management training to officials and others from 36. The latter, the report suggests, appears to have influenced subsequent legislation or regulation in Vietnam, Uganda, and Tanzania. It argues that “these trends present an existential threat to the future of the open internet and prospects for greater democracy around the globe.” They might ultimately fulfil predictions like that recently made by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, of “a bifurcation into a Chinese-led internet and a non-Chinese internet led by America.”
As democratic societies struggle with the challenges of a more dangerous and contested online sphere, leaders in Beijing have stepped up efforts to use digital media to increase their own power, both at home and abroad. China was once again the worst abuser of internet freedom in 2018, and over the past year, its government hosted media officials from dozens of countries for two- and three-week seminars on its sprawling system of censorship and surveillance. Moreover, its companies have supplied telecommunications hardware, advanced facial-recognition technology, and data-analytics tools to a variety of governments with poor human rights records, which could benefit Chinese intelligence services as well as repressive local authorities. Digital authoritarianism is being promoted as a way for governments to control their citizens through technology, inverting the concept of the internet as an engine of human liberation.
[…] Speaking at the Chinese Communist Party Congress in October 2017, President Xi Jinping publicly outlined his plan to transform China into a “cyber superpower.” He offered up the country’s model of governance—including its management of the internet—as “a new option for other countries and nations that want to speed up their development while preserving their independence.” But rather than simply leading by example, this year Beijing took major steps to establish its standards and practices around the world, in keeping with a detailed vision outlined not only in Xi’s past speeches but also in party policy journals.
For example, users of WeChat, China’s locally developed social media platform, complained of censorship even when accessing the service outside of the country. US companies like Delta, United, and American Airlines acceded to Chinese demands to list Taiwan as a part of China on their websites. The CAC blocked the hotel company Marriott’s website and booking app after it included Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, and Macau in a list of “countries” in a customer survey, which the agency said had “seriously violated national laws and hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.” Service was unblocked after the company issued a statement asserting its support for the “sovereignty and territorial integrity of China” and distancing itself from “separatist groups.” Mercedes-Benz issued a similar apology after an advertisement for the automaker on Instagram featured a quote from the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader.
[…] Chinese companies are playing a prominent role in the country’s push for telecommunications dominance, having installed internet and mobile network equipment in at least 38 countries. Some of these firms are private enterprises and may have their own reasons for making such investments, but all are also beholden to the government and its strategic goals. State-owned China Telecom, China Unicom, and China Mobile are laying down the digital Silk Road, with fiber-optic links to Myanmar, Kyrgyzstan, and Nepal, among other countries. A company called H3C has already won contracts to build the telecommunications network for airports in Nigeria and the port of Gwadar in Pakistan. Huawei is building Latin America’s largest public Wi-Fi network in Mexico, Bangladesh’s 5G mobile network, and Cambodia’s 4.5G service, and is advising the Kenyan government on its “master plan” for information and communication technologies.
Chinese firms have also provided high-tech tools of surveillance to governments that lack respect for human rights. In 18 of the 65 countries assessed by Freedom House, enterprises such as Yitu, Hikvision, and CloudWalk are combining advances in artificial intelligence and facial recognition to create systems capable of identifying threats to “public order.” CloudWalk signed an agreement with Zimbabwe to build a national facial recognition database and monitoring system. Citizens had no say in the deal, under which Zimbabwe will send biometric data on millions of its people to China to help train CloudWalk’s artificial intelligence (AI) programs to recognize faces with darker skin tones. Such collaboration and the data it provides not only enhance the Chinese government’s own tech-infused policing capacity, but also renders the companies’ products more effective and attractive to foreign autocrats. [Source]
The report also provides global context for a number of recently prominent themes in China. “Many governments are enforcing criminal penalties for the publication of what they deem false news,” it notes, adding that “authoritarians used claims of ‘fake news’ and data scandals as a pretext to move closer to the China model.” In one notable recent case in China, two bloggers were imprisoned late last month for spreading rumors about the disappearance of a dairy tycoon. The report also notes an international trend of “outsourcing […] censorship to often opaque and unaccountable private companies,” a pattern long established in online controls in China. It highlights data localization rules in Russia, Vietnam, Nigeria, Pakistan, and perhaps soon India, alongside those introduced in China’s 2017 cybersecurity law that have forced Apple and others to host Chinese users’ data on local servers. Other broader trends familiar from China include controls on VPNs and other forms of encryption, and the proliferation of real-name registration requirements, such as those announced this week by Tencent for all its games.
Other topics include net neutrality repeal and “disinformation and hyperpartisan content” in the U.S., the latter reflecting a global trend particularly focused on looming elections or ethnic differences; weakening judicial oversight of surveillance for intelligence collection in the West; and the EU’s GDPR, which although “not a silver bullet for digital rights” is nevertheless “one of the most ambitious attempts to regulate data collection in the 21st century.”
The report’s back cover carries a stark warning in large type: “Securing internet freedom against the rise of digital authoritarianism is fundamental to protecting democracy.” The text itself includes a number of proposals for achieving this without embracing authoritarian means. Regarding “fake news,” it highlights a range of “more constructive solutions [which] arise out of collaboration among civil society groups, governments, and tech companies” in Italy, the United States, Brazil, and Argentina. Not surprisingly, several recommendations have either explicit or implicit bearing on China. Policymakers are advised, for example, to use import and export controls and other economic penalties against companies providing technical infrastructure for oppressive surveillance programs, with Xinjiang cited as a key case. Sanctions under the U.S.’ Global Magnitsky Act or equivalent legislation elsewhere are also suggested.
The backlash by Google staff against company plans for a Chinese search engine with censorship and surveillance features is cited as an example of “hold[ing] companies accountable for compromising their commitments to democratic values for the sake of access to China’s lucrative market.” Elsewhere, the report alludes to this affair with its recommendation that companies “conduct human rights impact assessments for new markets and commit to doing no harm,” and “should not seek to operate in countries where they know they will be forced to violate international human rights principles.” A subsequent suggestion goes further, encouraging companies to “use internal expertise to help counter Chinese state censorship and protect users,” and “assist users in China by developing accessible tools that keep […] that enhance digital security, enable sharing of images in a way that evades AI-driven censorship, and incorporate circumvention capabilities into apps focused on other services.”
Citizens, meanwhile, are urged to “vigilantly monitor their own countries for any emerging investments, infrastructure developments, official trainings, technology sales, and user data transfers related to China […] and urge their governments to resist the temptation of adopting Chinese-style censorship or surveillance methods.”
The report has one specific legislative recommendation for the United States:
- In the United States, reintroduce and pass the Global Online Freedom Act (GOFA). GOFA, which would impose penalties on countries that restrict internet freedom, was introduced in every U.S. Congress from 2006 to 2014 but never passed. It would direct the Secretary of State to designate internet-restricting countries; prohibit the export to those countries of any items that could be used to carry out censorship, surveillance, or internet freedom restrictions; and require internet service companies operating in internet-restricting countries to disclose as part of their annual reporting what they are doing to protect human rights and freedom of information. Other countries should consider adopting legislation with similar provisions. [Source]
Freedom House president Michael Abramowitz and chairman Michael Chertoff distilled some of the report’s other recommendations in an op-ed at The Washington Post:
Democracies need to take immediate action to slow China’s techno-dystopian expansionism. Governments should impose sanctions on companies that knowingly provide technology designed for repressive crackdowns in places such as Xinjiang. Legislators in the United States should reintroduce and pass the Global Online Freedom Act, which would direct the secretary of state to designate Internet-freedom-restricting countries and prohibit the export to those countries of any items that could be used to carry out censorship or repressive surveillance. The law would also require tech companies operating in repressive environments to release annual reports on what they are doing to protect human rights and freedom of information.
But the best way for democracies to stem the rise of digital authoritarianism is to prove that there is a better model for managing the Internet. We will have to tackle social media manipulation and misuse of data in a manner that respects human rights, while also preserving an Internet that is global, free and secure.
Policymakers should undertake serious efforts to protect critical infrastructure and citizens’ personal data from misuse by governments, companies and criminals. Tech companies should dramatically scale up their work with civil-society experts to maximize their own transparency and ensure that their platforms are not being misused to spread disinformation. As the 2016 elections in the United States showed, more-responsible management of social media and stronger privacy rights are needed to prevent malicious actors from exploiting open societies to undermine democracy.
Beijing is working hard to propagate its system around the world. If democracies fail to advance their own principles and interests with equal determination, digital authoritarianism threatens to become the new reality for all of us. [Source]
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang commented dismissively on the report on Thursday:
Q: Freedom House in the US has released its annual report saying that China’s restrictive Internet policies and digital surveillance have spread worldwide and the Chinese government is promoting similar measures in other emerging market countries. What is China’s comment?
A: Like we have said many times, cyber security is a global issue. Cyberspace is a complicated virtual world where the interests of all parties are intertwined. Its maintenance calls for the constructive efforts from the international community, including from governments, relevant industries, think tanks and media.
This organization you mentioned has long been making false remarks on China-related issues. Its accusations are purely fictional, unprofessional and irresponsible. They are obviously out of ulterior motives. [Source]
CNN’s James Griffiths, whose forthcoming book “The Great Firewall of China: How to Build and Control an Alternative Version of the Internet” examines many of the same issues as the Freedom House report, highlighted ongoing related developments:
This week, the UN’s International Telecommunication Union gathered for its quadrennial meeting in Dubai. In the past, the ITU has been a key body for China and other leading internet censors, particularly Russia, to push for changes to international regulations to legalize or enable their controls.
[…] While the meeting has only just got underway, most experts expect the issue of internet governance — the key argument over which boils down to whether only governments should be able to set global policy, or if civil society and industry should have a role as well — to dominate matters again in Dubai.
China’s position is that national governments have the ultimate right to control the internet within their borders, and that this covers foreign companies, citizens, and anyone who attempts to interfere by, for example, creating software to undermine the Great Firewall.
The doctrine of cyber sovereignty, as advocated by Xi Jinping, will be on full display next month at China’s own World Internet Conference in the southern Chinese river town of Wuzhen.
This year’s forum “will further enhance the establishment of an internet development outlook characterized by mutual trust and collective governance among countries worldwide,” according to Liu Liehong, deputy director of the Cyberspace Administration of China, the country’s top censor. [Source]
For more from Freedom House on China, see the organization’s monthly China Media Bulletin.