The internet is dividing, and countries and companies will soon be forced to make a stark decision about their online futures: whether to choose the Western approach or a model shaped by the Chinese Communist Party.
Analysts warn the choice between the two very different philosophical camps won’t be easy — and could have serious implications.
The growing schism comes as governments of all persuasions impose greater national restrictions on online activity, often motivated by concerns over security and crime.
Many authoritarian regimes have also been attempting to ring-fence the internet in their countries as a means of greater social and political control, inspired by the success of Beijing’s Great Firewall.
In fact, Russian technologists are currently working on a system that would allow Moscow to effectively seal off their internet network from the rest of the world. The system is expected to have its first test later this year.
But it’s the future bifurcation of the internet that’s causing the greatest alarm.
And it helps explain why many Western countries are so suspicious of the operations of Chinese technology firm Huawei.Why is Huawei so controversial?
The dramatic arrest in Canada of Huawei’s chief financial officer for possible extradition to the US shocked many. But what exactly is Huawei and why does it seem like it’s continually being targeted by foreign governments?
A growing influence
Nations like Australia operate in an online environment informed by liberal political philosophy.
Our overarching approach to the internet is based on a mix of US First Amendment jurisprudence, Silicon Valley libertarianism and a relatively light touch of national regulation.
That model arose as the international default standard because the early development of the internet, and online platforms, largely occurred in the United States.
But many developing countries are now heading in a different direction.
Independent watchdog Freedom House estimates that about 38 countries have now had their telecommunications infrastructure designed and constructed by Chinese technology firms.
Those systems favour Chinese platforms like Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu, as opposed to American giants like Facebook and Google.
Economic strength and cultural clout
Mobile phone manufacturer Transsion is another example of China’s technological success.
Danny Crichton, the executive editor of technology journal TechCrunch Extra Crunch, says the company is now seen as the “Apple of Africa”.
“In some countries, 90 per cent of users use Transsion technology … and that’s just making it very challenging for US companies to compete,” he tells RN’s Future Tense.
Chinese firms are winning customers, Mr Crichton says, largely as a result of market factors, like price and quality.
But he says their growing dominance in the developing world has significant political implications.
“You’re not just buying a technology, you’re buying cultural values, an approach to doing the telecommunications infrastructure.”
And while companies like Huawei claim to be independent, that’s not the way the Chinese Communist Party sees things.
As security analyst Ashley Feng pointed out in a recent article for the influential journal Foreign Policy: “Chinese domestic laws and administrative guidelines, as well as unspoken regulations and internal party committees, make it quite difficult to distinguish between what is private and what is state-owned.”
In fact, tech giants like Baidu and Alibaba owe their considerable success in China, and elsewhere, to Chinese government bans imposed on the operation of foreign rivals.
And all Chinese social media platforms are quietly subject to heavy state surveillance, censorship and interference.
In 2017, Xi Jinping’s government enacted a new National Intelligence Law that reinforced the security obligation on Chinese technology firms.
It states: “National intelligence work institutions, when carrying out intelligence work according to laws, may ask relevant institutions, organisations and citizens to provide necessary support, assistance and cooperation.”Listen to the episode
It is estimated Chinese firms have now built internet infrastructure for more than 38 countries. Future Tense takes a look the dividing internet.
So the success of Chinese technology companies in overseas markets, Mr Crichton says, presents Beijing with an international tool of power and indirect influence.
“For China’s government, the closer you can align values, the more likely those countries are to work with other Chinese businesses and to support Chinese foreign policy,” he says.
And that, Mr Crichton says, has implications for free speech and surveillance that stretch well beyond the borders of China.
Playing the long game online
Using Chinese-designed infrastructure and platforms also makes it easier for those political leaders leaning toward authoritarianism to enact greater social control, says Suzanne Nossel, the chief executive of PEN America, a leading human rights and freedom of expression organisation.
“I think it’s an invitation to other governments to think more broadly about how they might like to censor,” she says.
Ms Nossel believes the Chinese Communist Party is playing the long game, not just in projecting its own international power, but in trying to undermine democracy and international values.
“China has its idea of cyber sovereignty, which is really a challenge to the global conception of internet freedom enshrined in UN resolutions and derived from the basic protections for freedom of expression in instruments like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” she says.
“China doesn’t subscribe to that.
“They are putting forward an alternative vision where each country can impose its own rules and obligations. For them that offers an extension of state control.”
A digital turning point
Justin Sherman, a cybersecurity researcher at the New America think tank in Washington, has mapped internet governance characteristics in 193 countries, ranging from those that have high state control to those at the liberal end of the spectrum.
He’s identified 50 nations as “digital deciders” — countries that are yet to make up their mind about whether to adopt an open model of the internet, or an authoritarian version.
“They really have not yet taken a clear stance on the internet,” Mr Sherman says.
He gives two reasons for why that might be the case.
Firstly, because the internet infrastructure in some countries is so underdeveloped that the country hasn’t yet established cyber policy.
And secondly, because some governments haven’t clearly aligned with either model.
“Some of the things they’re doing might to be democratic in nature, other things they are doing might be authoritarian in nature,” Mr Sherman says.
The digital deciders, according to Mr Sherman, include quite sizable and influential nations like South Africa and Indonesia.
Mr Sherman says the essential conundrum for the digital deciders is working out how to balance the economic benefits that come from an open internet, with the social control offered by Beijing’s authoritarian model.
But he fears the latter may win the day.
“The pivotal question going forward is can democratic countries come up with a model of the internet that has some appropriate balance of threat filtering with civil liberties and making sure we are not abusing power or entertaining authoritarian practices online,” he says.
Project Dragonfly and the lure of mass-market access
The fracturing of the internet also has serious ramifications for companies, including those large technology firms that have long embraced — and in many cases embodied — the US-style internet.
China is now the second biggest economy in the world. It also has the most internet users of any nation.
Access to that huge online market is highly prized by many Western firms.
Google shut down its Chinese search engine in 2010, citing concerns about internet censorship and the potential for government interference.
At the time, the decision seemed in line with the company’s original motto: “Don’t be evil.”
But last year, there were staff protests and international criticism after it was revealed that Google’s management were exploring a potential return to China, as part of a secretive project called Dragonfly.
“There was a team of engineers and product people and marketers focused on how Google could launch a new version of a censored internet search engine that could pass muster in China,” Ms Nossel says.
And that, she says, included holding discussions with the Chinese government about what such a return would entail.
“Google’s leadership says the project has been halted. But there remains a kind of shroud of secrecy around Google’s approach to China,” she says.
This week’s decision by Google, Intel and Qualcomm to partially suspend business operations with Huawei shows just how much political pressure is also being applied from Washington.
The Trump administration maintains Huawei is a national security risk.
Some accuse the US Government of using internet and telecommunications access as a proxy in its growing trade stoush with China, while others are talking of a tech Cold War.
Huawei’s founder, Ren Zhengfei, was defiant this week, declaring Chinese technology would dominate the future, with or without the cooperation of US tech companies.
“In terms of 5G technologies, others won’t be able to catch up with Huawei in two or three years. We have sacrificed ourselves and our families for our ideal, to stand on top of the world.”
But Ms Nossel warns Beijing’s mechanisms for control and censorship are so “all-encompassing” and entrenched, that any Western technology company trying to access the Chinese market will inevitably find itself having to make a choice: between upholding values of free-expression or becoming a cog in the apparatus of censorship.