The 2nd World Internet Conference (WIC) was held in the town of Wuzhen in China from 16th-18th December, 2015. Organized by the Chinese government since 2014, the WIC is China’s attempt to present an alternate vision of internet governance, with its pitch for increased ‘cyber-sovereignty’. This is in contrast to the prevailing notion across the world that internet should be governed by a multistakeholder model. The WIC is part of China’s effort to establish a stronger presence in the internet governance sphere, with many in China likening Wuzhen to an ‘internet Davos’.
One of the ways the Chinese government is attempting to make its presence felt is by attracting high profile names to the WIC. The 2nd edition made news for the presence of Fadi Chehade, the ICANN CEO. Chehade was also appointed to the High Level Advisory Committee of the WIC’s organizing Secretariat, a move that has come in for criticism from some quarters. He is among a list of appointees that include Jack Ma of the Alibaba group and Werner Zorn, the “father of the German Internet”. But the 2nd edition was notable for its absentees as much as it was for those who attended it. The resistance to an event like the WIC is based on China’s idea of cyber-sovereignty and fears of creating a walled internet that limits access to the internet based on jurisdiction.
In his speech at the opening ceremony of the WIC, Chinese President Xi Jinping- on whose account the conference was suddenly moved from October to December– reiterated China’s case for sovereign control of the internet. China has traditionally made the contested claim that the notion of sovereign control of the internet is based on the principle of sovereign equality, as enshrined in the UN Charter. This position is completely in opposition to the idea that all stakeholders should play an equal role in the governance of the internet given the historical role of the different stakeholders in the creation and development of the internet.
However, China’s claim to sovereignty over the internet is not without its supporters. For instance, the ITU Secretary General Zhao Houlin spoke at the WIC of the difference between internet governance which should involve all stakeholders and cybersecurity where states should play a dominant role. This is also consistent with ITU’s position as a multilateral institution which facilitates inter-state discussions on issues like cybersecurity.
On the issue of cybersecurity, China’s position is on firmer ground. The Outcome Document of the recently concluded WSIS 10-year review, points to the consensus among States of the ‘leading role’ played by States in cybersecurity matters. The High Level Meeting of the WSIS Review which happened at the same time as the WIC presented the best evidence of this position. Countries from across the board pushed for language that reiterated the central role of States in cybersecurity issues, rejecting suggestions for a more human rights compatible approach that took on board other stakeholders. Thus, the opposition to China’s push for greater prominence in the internet sphere is not based merely on its support of cyber-sovereignty.
Rather, the resistance stems from a deeper of mistrust of China based on the government’s domestic stranglehold over the internet. Activists have long protested China’s blocking of many popular services like Google, Facebook and Twitter which continue to remain unavailable in China. Ironically, it has been reported that international participants of the 2nd WIC were surreptitiously given access to these sites through special devices and ‘cheat codes’.
Yet, commentators are divided over whether the wider international community must engage with an event like the WIC. Some advocate a healthy scepticism towards China’s own policies, but point to the benefits of engaging directly with the Chinese government on what is meant to be an international platform for internet governance. Others argue that despite the marginal benefits of engaging with China, large scale attendance of the WIC would grant legitimacy to the arguably repressive policies Chinese government.
Criticism notwithstanding, China is committed to making WIC a platform where a competing vision of internet governance can gain traction. Whether this actually happens depends on 1) how open and accessible the next editions of the WIC are to the wider internet community; and 2) how willing the Chinese government is to engage in other internet governance fora that are more multistakeholder than multilateral. China has already succeeded in similar initiatives in other issue domains like trade where it hosts an annual trade fair that is widely attended. Appointing a High Level Advisory Board comprising of the CEO of a multistakeholder institution like ICANN and an internationally well regarded figure like Jack Ma (who is part of the coordination council of the NetMundial initiative) seems like a step in the right direction. It remains to be seen if this will lead to other such moves or if the WIC will be confined to a corner of the internet governance map.