Future of the Internet Should Not Be in Beijing’s Hands, Think Tank Warns

By Daniel Y. Teng
Daniel Y. Teng
Daniel Y. Teng
November 24, 2021 Updated: November 24, 2021

Governments worldwide are being warned to “err on the side of caution” when engaging with Beijing or international bodies heavily influenced by the communist regime in relation to shaping the future of the internet.

In a new report, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) says the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is hoping to export its domestic online censorship around the world by influencing how global bodies, like the World Internet Conference, shape the rules and values that govern cyberspace.

“In serving as the leading voice in establishing an international governance system for cyberspace, the CCP hopes for its own domestic governance of the internet to be emulated by multiple other jurisdictions and to reshape global norms,” the report stated.

“In so doing, the CCP is enabling a division of cyberspace to create one that’s susceptible to surveillance and ideological influence,” the report said.

ASPI also warned governments that lack comprehensive regulation around cyber should be careful when engaging with Beijing on international cyber governance strategies, noting that the Chinese regime obfuscates the amount of influence it has over major conferences or bodies.

“Events such as the World Internet Conference appear to be organised by the international community,” the report read. “They’re in fact organised directly under the Cyberspace Administration of China—an agency originally born from the former Office of External Propaganda.”

The Office is responsible for managing online content throughout China.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping has directed the CCP to focus its efforts on controlling the internet for years as it would provide Beijing with what Xi has described as “discourse power” over international communications and discussions.

In remarks in 2017, Xi articulated a vision of “using technology to rule the internet” to achieve control over every part of the ecosystem, including applications, content, quality, and manpower.

There have also been long-running concerns over “bifurcation” or a new “splinternet” between democratic nations and authoritarian regimes.

Currently, countries like China, Russia, and Turkey place heavy controls over internet usage, and there is speculation further development of the internet along these geopolitical fault lines could see the online world divided between an open and free internet and a heavily censored version.

In fact, the CCP has been making overtures to the International Telecommunication Union, a U.N. agency responsible for setting standards for computing and communications issues that is currently headed by Chinese national Zhao Houlin.

This comes as nations are in discussions over new infrastructure underpinning the internet so that it is more efficient and can cope with rapidly changing consumer demands.

However, experts have warned that Beijing, and other authoritarian governments, would seek to integrate “authoritarianism into the architecture underpinning the web” and give state-run internet service providers more control over users.

Meanwhile, Australian leaders have expressed concerns over increasing cyberattacks from China and Russia.

Earlier this week, the Senate passed the Security of Critical Infrastructure Act 2018, which will give the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) the authority to step in and take over the operating systems of certain companies in the event of a cyberattack.

Senator Jim Molan, a former Army major general, told the Senate that not one country has yet to apply their full cyber resources into attacking another country through cyberspace.

“We will only see the full cyber-capability of certain nations applied to other countries in the lead-up to, or actually in, war. And the prospect of war in our region is real,” he said. “These are worrying times.”

Rebecca Zhu, Nicole Hao, and Cathy He contributed to this article.