A Chinese police officer wears a pair of facial-recognition smart glasses at Zhengzhou East Railway Station in Zhengzhou in China's central Henan province. Photo: AFP
A Chinese police officer wears a pair of facial-recognition smart glasses at Zhengzhou East Railway Station in Zhengzhou in China's central Henan province. Photo: AFP

Freedom on the Net 2018: The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism, which was released this week by Freedom House, a United States government-funded NGO, has labeled China as “once again the worst abuser of internet freedom in 2018.”

While it leverages digital oversight to monitor its own population, it is also investing in online infrastructure and training courses for foreign officials as part of its “Digital Silk Road” initiative – raising the possibility of Beijing getting eyes on much of the globe’s web traffic.

But it is not just China.

Freedom Houses asserts that internet freedom is in decline worldwide as governments crack down on dissent and so-called fake news.  Due to a confluence of complex factors, “global internet freedom declined for the eighth consecutive year in 2018,” the report noted, “Events this year have confirmed that the internet can be used to disrupt democracies as surely as it can destabilize dictatorships.”

The report made reference to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony to two congressional hearings in April 2018 about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which “revealed that Facebook had exposed the data of up to 87 million users to political exploitation.”

Security breaches have affected 198 million American, 93 million Mexican, 55 million Filipino, and 50 million Turkish voters, the report further noted.

Global phenomenon

In short, this is a global phenomenon. The report pointed to Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar, where “false rumors and hateful propaganda that were spread online incited jarring outbreaks of violence against ethnic and religious minorities.” It added: “Such rifts often serve the interests of anti-democratic forces in society, the government, or hostile foreign states, which have actively encouraged them through content manipulation.”

Freedom House referred to the internet as the modern “public sphere,” emphasizing the responsibility of those running social media and search engines to serve the public good. “If anti-democratic entities effectively capture the internet, citizens will be denied a forum to articulate shared values, debate policy questions, and peacefully settle intra-societal disputes.”

The report also emphasized democratic values as essential to preserving the integrity of personal freedoms and attacked the “unrestrained and largely unexamined collection of personal data, without which peace, prosperity, and individual freedom—the fruits of democratic governance—cannot be sustained or enjoyed.”

Online freedom is in decline in a significant number of geographies.

“Of the 65 countries assessed, 26 have been on an overall decline since June 2017 … The biggest score declines took place in Egypt and Sri Lanka, followed by Cambodia, Kenya, Nigeria, the Philippines, and Venezuela,” the report states.

But it is China to which Freedom House devotes its most fervid vitriol.

Worst offender

In a lengthy section, China Remakes the World in its Techno-dystopian Image, Freedom House claimed “internet controls within China reached new extremes in 2018 with the implementation of the sweeping Cybersecurity Law and upgrades to surveillance technology,” making it, the report claims, the world’s worst upholder of internet freedom.

The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), formed in 2014, answers to the Central Cyber Affairs Commission, an agency headed by President Xi Jinping. Together, the agency and the commission oversee the Cybersecurity Law, which became effective in June 2017. It provides for heightened oversight of network operators and social media companies “to register users under their real names.”

It also demands that local and foreign companies “immediately stop transmission” of banned content, “and compels them to ensure that all data about Chinese users is hosted within the country.”

The report continues that the law is continually being finessed with “new directives.” These average “nearly one every two days – to fine-tune what netizens can and cannot do online.”

Other developments under the new law include crackdowns on the use of virtual private networks (VPNs). Think of these as encrypted tunnels that allow internet users in China to leapfrog the Great Firewall that insulates the Chinese internet from the global internet.

State surveillance

More alarming,  Freedom House said, is the issue of state surveillance and social control.

The report noted: “In the western region of Xinjiang, home to the country’s Uighur Muslim minority, facial recognition technology and other advanced tools are being used to monitor the local population and thwart any actions deemed to harm ‘public order’ or ‘national security.’

The mass detention of ethnic Uighur in hastily constructed mass “re-education camps” is now so well documented, there is no wiggle room to deny their existence. In fact, they were recently made legal. But less is known about how internet technologies have been used to locate potential “student/inmates” or how the internet is used to identify them as deserving of incarceration.

“Many detainees,” the report stated, “are held as a result of their nonviolent online activities.”

Freedom House sees this as a foreshadowing of a “nascent nationwide Social Credit System, which rates citizens’ “trustworthiness” by combining data on their online and offline behavior.” It added: “A government website contains a list of the names and identification numbers of individuals who have “lost” their social credit, as well as up-to-date statistics on exactly how many millions of people are banned from air and rail travel.”

Such developments are well known, but on the question of China’s greater ambitions, the territory is more opaque. On this, Freedom House takes on a more strident note, referring to a speech made by Xi at the Chinese Communist Party Congress in October 2017, when he announced his vision of transforming China into a “Cyber Superpower.”

Going global

Referring to China’s unique “model of governance,” Xi suggested that China’s approach to the internet offered “a new option for other countries and nations that want to speed up their development while preserving their independence.”

According to Freedom House, this does not involve leading by example. The report said: “This year Beijing took major steps to establish its standards and practices around the world, in keeping with a detailed vision outlined not only in Xi’s past speeches but also in party policy journals.”

A cornerstone of this cyber expansionism is China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is, in fact, far more than a bricks-and-mortar infrastructure web of global interconnectivity. It is inclusive of what Freedom House called a “digital Silk Road.”

Chinese are building fiber-optic networks as part of the BRI that could expose internet traffic to greater monitoring by local and Chinese intelligence agencies. In other words, the report maintained: “China is determined to set the technical standards for how the next generation of traffic is coded and transmitted … [and] China has organized forums where it can impart its norms to authoritarian-leaning governments.”

On the last point, Freedom House makes reference to the 2017 World Internet Conference in Wuzhen in eastern China’s province of Zhejiang. Ironically, as a Reuters report noted at the time, the “global event” was preceded by a China-wide crackdown on the use of VPNs.

In a further worrying development, the Freedom House report alleged: “Chinese officials have held training and seminars on new media or information management with representatives from 36 out of the 65 countries covered in this survey.”

‘Purely fictional’

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang, in the course of a regular press conference on November 1, called the findings in the report “purely fictional.”

In context, Lu said: “Cyberspace is a complicated virtual world [and] … its maintenance calls for … constructive efforts from the international community, including from governments, relevant industries, think tanks and media. This organization … has long been making false remarks on China-related issues. Its accusations are purely fictional, unprofessional and irresponsible. They are obviously out of ulterior motives.”

That was a predictable response. Given China’s track-record on governance, its stated expansionist goals and the controls it imposes on the internet at home, there is little reason to doubt it has ambitions to remodel the world-wide-web in its own image too.

In short, China has ambitions to export its model of the internet, but it is difficult to imagine – given that China’s own internet is essentially closed to the global one – that this could possibly result in more than a patchwork world of closed national intranets.

“I’m disappointed with the current state of the internet,” Tim Berners-Lee, the British computer scientist who is credited with inventing the world-wide-web told Reuters this week ahead of the publication of the Freedom House internet report. “We have lost the sense of individuality, and to some extent also, I think optimism has weakened.”

If Berners-Lee is disappointed now, he should try accessing Google from Beijing…

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