Authoritarian Tech

China & Russia: Two different approaches to ‘internet sovereignty’

When we launched our Authoritarian Tech channel a year ago, the talk of the town was a war of two internets: the “open” internet on one side and another doctrine, called “internet sovereignty,” on the other.

The internet sovereignty side was represented by China and Russia, and when we needed a header image for our article about it, we made the one above.

But how united are China and Russia really, in their approach to the internet?

That’s the question a new report from the Hague Program for Cyber Norms, funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, tries to answer.

On the surface, the two countries share a lot. For one, both national governments exhibit a kind of siege mentality about online information, viewing the free flow of ideas on the internet as a national security threat. “[B]oth countries see online information as the primary risk,” the report concludes.

But there is one crucial difference as well: China has a massive tech industry, and Russia… well, it’s not as big. From the crackdown on Uyghurs to the digital components of Belt and Road, a powerful Chinese tech industry fuels key pillars of national policy. Russia, despite some advances, is lagging behind.

Even in their hacking operations abroad, the two countries are different. Russia “seems to pursue a policy of political destabilization of Western countries,” while Chinese hackers “have mostly concentrated on economic targets”—stealing intellectual property to benefit domestic industries. In essence, Russia trolls, China steals.

On the whole, a picture emerges of China as a rising digital and economic superpower with long-term ambitions and serious investment in technology. Russia, on the other hand, comes across as a laggard that fears the internet at home while using it to muddy the waters abroad.

This week in Coda

If that report suggests the “authoritarian” countries differ in their cyberspace philosophy, the same can be said for “free” countries. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the EU, through initiatives like the GDPR, is paving a “third way,” distinct from both America and, say, China: a relatively free internet that still acts aggressively to contain the excesses of surveillance capitalism.

Regular Coda contributor Filip Brokes went to a conference attended by some of Europe’s leading minds in tech regulation. “We just want them [tech platforms] to share with the public the decisions behind building these algorithms,” Katarzyna Szymielewicz from the Polish NGO Fundacja Panoptykon told him. Read his dispatch here.

OTHER NEWS:

  • I recommend this thoughtful critique of “data is the new oil” metaphors. Yes, data is valuable, but calling it oil takes for granted that it’s a commodity, and suggests the best we can hope for is a better-regulated surveillance capitalism. (Real LIfe)
  • You probably saw, or at least heard of, Sacha Baron Cohen’s address about social media last week. Not everyone is enthusiastic about it, even those often critical of tech. The Verge’s Casey Newton, for example, usually quite critical of bad social media moderation, has written an in-depth, thoughtful critique arguing that Cohen’s proposals are inadequate. (The Verge)
  • China used to be skeptical of Bitcoin, but now seems to be pivoting to adopting digital currency on a government level. This article argues that cryptocurrency could become the foundation for Chinese soft power. (Observer)
  • Fresh reporting on Western tech companies’ complicity in China’s crackdown in Xinjiang. (WSJ)
  • Why are data centers so often in abandoned industrial buildings? Sure, maybe it’s convenient. But what if it’s actually because of neoliberalism? That’s what this journal article tries to explain. (Work Organisation, Labour, and Globalisation)
Eduard Saakashvili

Eduard wrote his first article in Coda while a media studies student at Swarthmore College. After graduating, he worked in production roles for various public radio programs in the U.S. Now, he is excited to be back at Coda to help run its project on authoritarian technology. Eduard recently tried to boycott the internet, but this turned out to be impossible.

Get in touch via [email protected]

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