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Opinion: Russia and China’s hypocritical attempt to control cyberspace

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Russian President Vladimir Putin talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping via video conference in Moscow on June 28. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
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Opinion by David IgnatiusColumnistJuly 20, 2021 at 5:50 p.m. EDT139

At the very moment that Russia and China are facing more pressure from Western governments to stop malicious cyberattacks, they’ve announced a pact to work together for new rules to control cyberspace.

In the annals of diplomatic hypocrisy, this new accord is a stunner, even by Russian and Chinese standards. It promotes a new Russian plan for international governance of the global Internet, even as it stresses the right of Russia, China and other authoritarian states “to regulate the national segment of the Internet” to edit and censor what their people can see.

The June 28 Russia-China accord was revealed in a little-noticed posting the next day by the Chinese embassy in Moscow, which was sent to me by a European Internet activist. It amounts to a manifesto for joint Internet control through capture of existing United Nations-sponsored organizations, such as the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

“The parties emphasize the unity of positions on the management of the Internet,” says a translated version of the pact, explaining that “Russia and China note the need to strengthen the role of the International Telecommunication Union and the representation of the two countries in its governing bodies.”

This expansion to cyberspace of an existing treaty on “good neighborliness, friendship and cooperation” is a sign of what Biden administration officials tell me is a deepening strategic alignment between Moscow and Beijing. To formalize the agreement, Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping held a joint teleconference last month, according to a story by the Russian news agency Novosti.

Russia’s alignment with China on cyber issues dampens whatever hope the Biden administration might have had that it could split the two countries. Such a wedge developed in the 1970s, because of Chinese resentment of diktats from the old Soviet Union. But the Novosti commentary noted that this old “ideological quarrel” has been replaced by “a new model of Russian-Chinese relations.”Advertisement

The Moscow-Beijing Internet alliance should raise eyebrows because it comes at a time when U.S. intelligence agencies are discovering new evidence that Russian and Chinese intelligence agencies are either directing or condoning use of ransomware and other malicious cyberattacks against Western companies.

The latest revelation of such meddling was Monday’s disclosure by the Biden administration that China’s spy agency, the Ministry of State Security, “uses criminal contract hackers to conduct unsanctioned cyber operations globally,” including a hack of Microsoft’s Exchange suite used by “tens of thousands of systems around the world,” a senior administration official said. The official said these Chinese operations exceed even Russian “moonlighting” between its intelligence services and criminal hackers.

Even as Russian and Chinese intelligence operatives escalate their attacks on the West, the two governments are trying to claim the high road as Internet cops — and denouncing Western technology companies as dangerous monopolists. The Russians and Chinese are also working to topple the existing Internet governance structure, in which a nonprofit group called ICANN coordinates the domain name system. The Russians and Chinese want to replace it with an ITU-run system that they can dominate.

The Russian-Chinese strategy for Internet control was outlined in unusual detail in a July 12 article by Russian official Olga Melnikova, a director of the Department of International Information Security of the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry. It appeared in the Russian journal International Affairs.

“Currently, the Internet is virtually a monopoly controlled by the U.S. administration,” Melnikova argued, in an English translation of the article. She attacked ICANN, the panel of engineers and technologists established in 1998. Melnikova argued that ICANN “is accountable to the global multi-stakeholder community, that is, to no one, and is in fact still controlled by the U.S. administration.”

ICANN has disputed this claim, insisting that since it ended a contract with the Commerce Department in 2016, the organization has been entirely independent of any government.Advertisement

Melnikova argued that to replace U.S. control, “the best option would be to delegate Internet governance prerogatives to the ITU.” But she complained that by supporting their own candidate, ITU department director Doreen Bogdan-Martin, against a Russian nominee, “the Americans are striving to take control over the activities of the ITU.” Washington strives “to retain the possibility of technological dominance and a de facto monopoly in Internet governance,” she wrote.

The Internet is the high ground of the 21st century, in terms of economic, political and even military power. But however advanced the technology, the battle for control is trench warfare, fought in obscure meetings and forums and standard-setting bodies.

“We’re very, very actively engaged on this front,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told me in an email in May.Advertisement

The Russians and Chinese have now formed an alliance for control. It’s encouraging that after four years of deference under President Donald Trump, the United States and its allies in the world’s techno-democracies are fighting back.

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Opinion by David IgnatiusDavid Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column for The Washington Post. His latest novel is “The Paladin.”  TwitterMORE FROM DAVID IGNATIUS