China is seeking an international agreement to enhance state control over the internet in order to fight cyberattacks and cyberterrorism. Beijing wants to extend the existing idea of sovereignty over land and sea to cyberspace.
Beijing has released its first white paper discussing how it will persuade different countries to join together in an international partnership. The idea is to enhance the power of individual governments over cyberspace and reduce the role of the private sector.
"Countries in the whole world have increasing concerns [about cyberattacks] in this regard. Cyberspace should not be a space of no laws," Long Zhou, coordinator of the Cyber Affairs division of the Foreign Ministry said last week while releasing copies of "International Strategy of Cooperation on Cyberspace," China's first policy paper on the issue.
Visitors gather at a social network company booth during the 2016 Global Mobile Internet Conference in Beijing, April 28, 2016. China's legislature approved a cybersecurity law, Nov. 7, 2016, that human rights activists warn will tighten political controls and foreign companies say might isolate Chinese industries.
Analysts see it as a grandiose plan to extend the Chinese idea of censorship across large parts of the world. China has been criticized in developed countries for controlling the internet with a heavy hand and not allowing Google, Facebook, Twitter and many foreign news websites to be seen in China.
The first set of organizations that will be hit, if the Chinese campaign gains momentum, are American companies that play a dominant role in the internet space, analysts said.
"The inventors of cyberspace were idealistically and ideologically convinced that they had created a domain of perfect freedom, where anyone could gain entry and behave as if no laws existed," Sheila Jasanoff, director of the program on science, technology and society at Harvard University's Kennedy School told VOA.
"It has been interesting to see how this allegedly wide open and free space has gradually been 'written over' with all the markers of national sovereignty and rivalry," she said.
Russian role in U.S. polls
China is taking advantage of the uproar in the United States over alleged cyberattacks by Russia to interfere in the recent presidential election.
Asked about the alleged Russian interference, Long said, "Especially in recent years, the number of cybersecurity events throughout the world is increasing, posing challenges to all countries' efforts to maintain political, economic stability and protecting all citizens' rights and interests."
Lee Branstetter, an associate professor of economics at the Heinz School of Policy and Management of the Carnegie Mellon University, saw the situation differently.
"The China solution is a proposal to create huge barriers to the free flow of information across borders. It is hard to see how a global digital economy could function under such a regime," he said.
Beijing action plan
China is trying to persuade world governments and international agencies, including the United Nations, to accept the principal of "cyber sovereignty" that allows each country to govern the internet in the manner it wants without interference from other governments. Long said the concept of land and sea sovereignty, which is recognized by the U.N., should be extended to the cyber world because the problems and situations are similar.
He said the international community is discussing the need to "produce new international legal instruments to deal with the security situation in cyberspace." These situations include cyberterror or cross-boundary cybercrimes.
China plans to raise the issue at different international forums including U.N. agencies, the BRICS group — for Brazil, Russia, India and China — and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The Chinese endeavor has the support of Russia, which will join in the campaign for making international rules on cyberspace, Long said at a recent news conference.
Jasanoff is skeptical of the Chinese rationale.
"There is good reason to believe that China will do more to limit the freedom of information of its citizens than to ensure its own security with regard to things like critical infrastructure," she said. "The most effective firewall will likely be against the creation of domestic networks of civilian information exchange and protest."
Assertions of cybersovereignty from China and elsewhere are happening at a time when national sovereignty is in decline for many reasons, not least because the technological capability for both creating and breaking through security systems is highly dispersed, she said.
"Hackers for hire are distributed throughout the world, and recent experiences at all kinds of major institutions shows that hardly any are free from threats (and even the reality) of cyberattacks," Jasanoff said.