Hi, welcome to China Uncensored, I’m your host Chris Chappell.
The Internet! Some of you watching may not have even been alive at a time when the Internet wasn’t everywhere. But I remember such a time. When computers were mysterious novelties, completely misunderstood by popular media.
Electric Dreams was popular, right? Anyway, the world has now changed in weird, wild ways. Because Internet.
But at the beginning, no one really knew what to do with computers. Other than, you know, designing your own woman.
The 80s were magnificent. But clearly at that time, no one really could predict where this whole Internet thing was going. Although it is largely still about finding the perfect woman.
Anyway, the point is, 20 years ago, the Internet was still developing. And so in 1998 the US government helped create the Los Angeles based non-profit, ICANN – The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. To put it very simply, there’s a department of ICANN that’s in charge of the Internet’s address book. It makes sure users get to the website they intend to visit. Like when you type in YouTube.com, it sends you to YouTube’s website so you don’t have to type in the long string of numbers which is YouTube’s actual IP address.
It’s like how you don’t bother remembering your mom’s phone number anymore because you can just go to your phone’s Contacts and click her name. But you use ICANN way more than you call your mother. ICANN is like if the entire world shared Contacts for Internet addresses.
That’s really important because whoever controls the Internet’s address book also has the ability to censor the Internet. Let’s say ICANN removes the domain name youtube.com. YouTube ielf may still exist, but would you know what numbers to type in to get there? 99.9% of people wouldn’t be able to access it.
So ICANN is really important. As the Economist puts it, “That is why, as the internet grew up, America decided not to hand control to the United Nations or another international body steered by governments.”
But for the most part, the US government has been pretty much hands off, which let the Internet thrive as the global depository of cat videos we know today.
But something changed this past Saturday. Because the US let its contract with ICANN expire. As of October 1, it will be run on a “multi-stakeholder model.” In other words, a “mix of corporate interests, government officials, activists and experts spread across four international bodies.”
Whew, this is getting complicated! Can we go back to the old days for a bit?
You see, the Internet was never meant to have a central authority. And the less say that governments have, the more free the Internet, right?! After all, there are 3.6 billion Internet users, so of course the vast majority are outside the US.
And after Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA was spying on the global Internet, a lot of people called for the US to give up control over the Internet. So did a lot of major technology and telecommunication companies.
So the US did give up control. Well, not completely. I mean, the US will still have one seat on ICANN’s 171-member Governmental Advisory Committee. In other words the US’s position on the committee will be theoretically equal to a country like Barbados, a country with a population smaller than Wichita, Kansas.
But that doesn’t mean Barbados shouldn’t have an equal say over how the Internet gets run. And that’s not the whole picture, since in reality not all countries have equally small stakes in how the Internet will be run. Actually, the US will still have lots of sway. But you know who else will? China. A country I talk about so much, you were wondering when I was going to get to it.
You see, China—or Chinese authorities to be precise—are very happy about the US giving up its control.
As one Chinese cyber security professor said, “China has the capability now to set up international rules for cyberspace and use our strategy and our rules to influence the world.”
I mean, who wouldn’t want China’s Internet rules to apply to the entire world? I mean, first of all, we’d get actual Internet police.
But that’s just some professor saying that’s the plan. I mean, it’s paranoid delusion to imagine that China is actually considering setting up its own rules in cyberspace. Except that, according to another guy, “China is considering setting up its own rules in cyberspace.” And that other guy is the Premier of China, Li Keqiang.
So, maybe there is something to the idea that the Communist Party might be trying to influence the global Internet. It’s pretty well known the Chinese regime has kept a tight grip on China’s Internet—with the aforementioned two million Internet police who monitor what Chinese citizens do and say.
They also block access to websites they consider subversive. Like YouTube.
But over the past few years, the Chinese regime been pushing to control the world’s Internet—by filling the void left by the United States as it steps back from ICANN.
But how? Isn’t there that “multi-stakeholder model?” Well, the Chinese regime has gotten pretty good at manipulating international bodies and foreign tech companies, like the ones that will now oversee ICANN.
Take for instance China’s Technical Committee 260, or TC260. It was founded in 2002. Yeah, so they’ve been secretly planning this for a long time.
China has been using the TC260 in part to “actively participate in international rules and standards making in cyberspace, so as to improve discourse and China’s influence and increase international adoption of Chinese standards.”
Now if the name TC260 sounds a bit like Ed 209 from RoboCop, well, that’s a not too far off. Think of it like an Ed 209 designed make internet policy instead of “urban pacification.”
The TC260 helps draft laws that focus on encryption, big data and other cybersecurity issues. And, as the Wall Street Journal says, it makes sure technology is “secure and controllable.”
Secure and controllable? By the CCP? That doesn’t sound too good. But wait! The TC260 is not just the CCP. It’s a committee. Foreign tech companies like Microsoft, Cisco, Intel, and IBM are members. Surely, they will help China move in the right direction in terms of Internet freedom.
Except, many Western tech companies get a little funny when access to the Chinese market is dangled in front of them. Like when IBM caved to pressure from the Chinese regime and gave one of the world’s biggest violators of Intellectual Property access to their source code.
Or when Cisco sold routers to China with the intention of helping the regime censor its citizens.
So my guess is these companies aren’t really going to change China, as much as China is going to change them.
Anyway, if you’re worried about the TC260 drafting scary big brother Internet regulations—well, yeah. But those regulations only apply to people inside China.
However, the TC260 is also part of a broader plan by Chinese authorities to exert control over the world’s Internet. The TC260 reports directly to the Cyberspace Administration of China.
And the Cyberspace Administration of China just happens to report directly to the Leading Small Group for Network Security and Information, which is chaired by the leader of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping.
In other words, the TC260 ultimately reports to the head of the Communist Party. And its goal is to influence international rules and standards for the Internet.
And that’s just one example of how the CCP is trying to influence Internet policy. There’s also a sort of related organization called the CyberSecurity Association of China. Its goal is to strengthen the CCP’s control over China’s Internet, including how foreign companies can operate in China. But while the CyberSecurity Association has representatives from Chinese companies like Alibaba, it has no foreign companies among its members. Oh, and its chairman is this guy—who created the Great Firewall of China. So suffice it to say, it’s not pro-Internet freedom.
The association can start discussions abroad at “more senior levels” with “international industry, academic, and research associations” that constitute the global system that controls the internet under the multistakeholder model, according to a report from the Center for Strategic & International Studies.
And its Secretary General is Li Yuxiao, who once said this: “Now is the time for China to realize its responsibilities. If the United States is willing to give up its running of the internet sphere, the question comes as to who will take the baton and how it would be run.”
So if all of this seems a bit complicated, it is. That’s the point. The Chinese regime doesn’t want people figuring it out.
And that’s how, under the radar, the Chinese regime has spent a long time carefully designing ways to influence the groups that will be overseeing ICANN, the world’s Internet address book that all of us use everyday.
Does the Chinese regime control the global Internet now? No. But they want to. They’ve been planning it for a long time, and exerting their influence little by little. And now, as the United States steps back from ICANN, the Chinese regime sees this as a perfect time to fill the void.
And guess what? This is just the tip of the iceberg. If you’d like to learn more, I highly recommend you read this article by Joshua Philipp, whom I’ve interviewed before on this show.
So what do you think is in store for the future of the Internet? Can we keep the Internet free until the inevitable day the machines become sentient and kill us all? Leave your comments below. Thanks for watching this episode of China Uncensored. Once again I’m Chris Chappell, see you next time.