Whose Internet Is It Anyway? China Wields More Influence

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A few days before the anniversary of China’s crackdown in Tiananmen Square this June, Patrick Poon posted a video commemoration on his LinkedIn Web page. The Hong Kong-based researcher for Amnesty International soon got a message saying the post was prohibited in China so it had been blocked from the site -- and by extension from users worldwide.

“I was shocked,” said Poon. “I didn’t expect a foreign social media company would ever send such a message to clients.”

As its Internet population grows and its companies become global powers, China is using domestic tactics like censorship and fake Twitter accounts to shape public opinion abroad.

“They’re thinking about this as a global game,” said David Bandurski, editor of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong. “It’s no longer just a question of domestic control and international image.”

China set up hundreds of fake Twitter accounts to spread rumors meant to discourage people from joining a Hong Kong march to commemorate the Tiananmen anniversary, according to Greatfire.org, which monitors Internet censorship in China. Free Tibet, a London-based advocacy group, said in July, it found 100 fake accounts featuring tweets including attacks on the Dalai Lama and praising China’s rule over the territory. Chinese companies, which are required by law to censor subjects such as Tiananmen and the religious group Falun Gong in China, have been accused of using similar practices as they expand overseas.

Policy Change

LinkedIn Corp. has changed its policy since the Poon posting, said Roger Pua, a spokesman. Now, content that is censored within China will still be visible outside the country. That is currently the case with his video. Though technically part of China, Hong Kong has a separate government and historically has not been subject to its censorship rules.

LinkedIn, the biggest U.S. social-media company active in China, started a Chinese-language professional networking site in February. Regulators there block access to other U.S.-based sites, including those of Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc.

The growth of the Internet brings “new challenges to national sovereignty, safety and interests,” President Xi Jinping wrote in a letter to attendees of this week’s government-sponsored Internet conference in Wuzhen. The Internet could become a treasure vault or a Pandora’s Box depending on how it’s used and managing it well “matters to international security and social stability,” Xi was cited as having said.

China is not the only country with online censorship. Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are among the other nations where the Internet and digital media are “not free,” according to a global assessment from the research group Freedom House.

Filter Results

Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s messaging service WeChat, which faces restrictions at home, is pushing into markets including India, Argentina and Brazil. Last year, the technology blog Tech in Asia said that WeChat was blocking sensitive words for users globally. Tencent responded that the block was the result of a “technical glitch,” the blog reported. A Tencent spokeswoman did not immediately reply to an e-mail seeking comment.

Chinese search-engine operator Baidu Inc. has also drawn criticism for its practices abroad. A group of pro-democracy activists filed suit complaining that Baidu illegally suppressed political speech by blocking search results in the U.S. This March, a New York judge dismissed the suit, saying the First Amendment protected Baidu’s right to filter search results.

Lese Majeste

“We censor only in accordance with the national law of countries in which we operate,” Kaiser Kuo, director of Baidu’s international communications, said in an e-mail. He was not commenting specifically on the lawsuit. “In Thailand, for instance, we’ll respect laws against lese majeste and not link to pages that insult the king and queen of Thailand.”

Even without censorship, China’s influence extends beyond its borders. Chinese-language search results for Microsoft Corp.’s Bing search engine show a higher proportion of results from government-friendly websites because traffic to those sites is higher, Greatfire.org said. Microsoft said it doesn’t apply China’s legal requirements to searches from outside the country.

That happens as U.S. companies are facing growing calls for stepped-up protections of user privacy in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations of spying by the National Security Agency.

“There’s an effort to get American and European companies to be more transparent on how they handle government information requests,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, a U.S.-based director of the Ranking Digital Rights project at the New America Foundation and former Beijing bureau chief for CNN. “Obviously, that’s not happening with the Chinese.”

ITU Rule?

China’s growing influence has been on display at the first global Web summit hosted by the government’s cyberspace regulator this week in the Venice-like town of Wuzhen, in eastern China’s Zhejiang Province. Speakers include the chief executive officers of China’s Tencent, Baidu and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., as well as those from Japan’s SoftBank Corp. and U.S. chipmaker Qualcomm Inc. One of the aims is to show that China is ready to shoulder greater responsibility over Internet governance and development, state news agency Xinhua said.

The head of the country’s Internet regulator, Lu Wei, has said China should play a bigger role in Web governance. China has the biggest Internet population and four of the top 10 Internet companies, state-run Xinhua cited Lu as saying last month. Responding to questions about access to censored websites, he said it was in accordance with Chinese law.

“China has always been hospitable to the outside world, but I can choose who will be a guest in my home,” said Lu, according to the Xinhua report.

The Internet has been loosely managed by groups of engineers who reached technical standards or organizations that included representatives from business, academia and civil society. Supporters said that system fostered a more freewheeling Internet, while critics say it favored American interests and trampled sovereign rights.

Government Sway

China, along with Russia and countries from the Middle East, want to put governance under the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union, said Danielle Kehl, a policy analyst at New America’s Open Technology Institute. In October, for the first time a Chinese national, Zhao Houlin, who joined the union in 1986, was appointed its head.

Zhao has advocated for a greater role for government in the development of the Web. In a 2011 interview with Chinese state-owned newspaper Global Times, he said governments should have a bigger say over the allocation of IP addresses, the virtual address that allows computers to communicate over the Web, and said that the U.S. had too many addresses relative to China.

Whose Internet?

China is lobbying for a greater role in the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the organization created in 1998 to assign individual addresses so computers can communicate with each other. ICANN had been operating under contract with the U.S. Department of Commerce, a contract that is set to expire. China is expected to be among the countries pushing to let governments have a vote in ICANN decisions, said Song Zheng, the head of ICANN’s Beijing office.

At stake is the answer to this question: “Who is the Internet for?” MacKinnon said. “The Chinese government takes the nationalistic approach. It’s up to the government to represent their people’s interest in determining what the Internet should be.”