Beware China’s Proposals for a New System of Internet Governance

Amid all the dents and formulaic verbiage that makes up the text of China’s 14th Five-Year Plan, is one particular piece of text that has largely passed observers and commentators by. And it reads like this: ‘’China will promote the establishment of a global Internet governance system that is multilateral, democratic and transparent’’. On the face of it nothing could be more innocuous. But that would be a major misreading of a very important piece of text. And the key to this, is the term multilateral.

Currently global Internet governance operates under the multi-stakeholder system. In this system a wide variety of stakeholders get to determine how it works. But China wants to replace this very democratic and informal system with what it calls a multilateral system. In it national governments would determine how the Internet works. In effect China’s multilateral system would be a formula for an Internet with border controls and health checks. Not only would China have the right under international law to block content that it deemed as harmful or injurious to its interests, but it will also have the right to expect that other states would block such material for it. And this approach is one that commands quite a lot of support amongst authoritarian regimes around the world. Particularly in the developing world.

This is not something that is going anywhere soon. Nevertheless it’s going to be a battle that’s going to be fought over a long period of time. The end result of it is unclear. But there is no way that liberal democracies lead by the United States are going to accept China’s proposition.

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