China’s Bid for Cyber Sovereignty Threatens Global Internet Freedom

Last updated on December 12, 2018 Views: 547 Comments: 0

On December 5th, the fourth World Internet Conference in China brought together global influencers to discuss the future of internet in the country. While President Xi alluded to an open door policy, the detailed proposals left many resident of China fearful for the future of internet freedom in the country.

Since the 13th century, China has been increasingly impervious to outside influence. The first maritime ban was followed by the closed borders of the Ming Dynasty, the Qing Dynasty and beyond. It wasn’t until 1978 that China officially opened their doors to foreign business.

Considering this isolationist history, it’s unsurprising that modern day China has treated the internet with the same trepidation and suspicion. The country is known for its strict online censorship regime.

So the recent revelation by President Xi claiming China’s cyberspace ‘door will become more and more open,‘ was understandably met with skepticism from many.

China’s Technological Prowess

The fourth World Internet Conference was held in December in Wuzhen, China. Established by Chinese officials in 2014, the summit seemingly exists to further concrete the country’s role as a global internet influencer.

This year, their focus surrounded one topic: cyber sovereignty.

Chinese ideologue, Wang Huning, took to the stage to detail five proposals for the future of cyberspace worldwide. He actively reiterated the need for individual governments to gain full control over their native internet.

His main ideas included:

  • Government interventions in web maintenance and accessibility.
  • Government-led development in new technologies such as AI and quantum computing.
  • Restrictions on international interference with the internet.

While these requests come as little surprise, the prestige and notability of the conference attendees provided the ideal platform for China’s plea to be heard by the right people – including Apple CEO, Tim Cook; Sundar Pichai, the head of Google and Facebook Inc. executive.

The attempts to sway guests did not go unnoticed.

Promises of Open Internet

Wang spoke in person at the conference, while President Xi relayed his message via written note. Both talked about opening doors and conserving China’s global internet connection. Reflecting this vision, the conference itself allowed open access to the net, sparing attendees the extreme blacklisting of the national web. Completing the charade, Wang’s speech was preceded by a video depicting the internet connecting China to the world.

While there’s no doubt that the stage was set well, this thinly veiled attempt to frame cyber sovereignty as a globalizing device soon became easy to see through.

So – is China going to take down its Great Firewall and embrace global internet?

 The short answer is no.

Both recent law changes within the country, combined with Wang’s clever phrasing of the statement that ‘we are all participants ’ provides transparency to the true aim of the speech.

Contradictions & Inconsistencies

To understand the poignancy of this bid, you need to know what’s banned in China already. Many have heard of the strict censorship, but the reality is more complex.

  • The Great Firewall. Many websites are banned in China, including Western social media and news sites. They also remove websites and re-route search terms that contradict or criticize the government.
  • Data Collection Laws. China introduced a strict data retention policy requiring all ISPs to collect a detailed profile of each user, to be stored for 60 days. The authorities have the power to dip into these records whenever they wish.
  • VPN Ban. Although VPNs have long been illegal in China, the country aims to impose a complete ban by 2018. The three main telecom providers are responsible for enforcing the law. Companies will also be required to register use of any internal VPNs.

Considering this, it’s highly unlikely that Wang’s proposals for more Government interference are going to provide the ‘open doors’ both he, and President Xi, promised attendees. In reality, cyber sovereignty for China will merely justify increased online restrictions and prosecution.

The Future of Internet in China

While these proposals may appear daunting, it’s not yet time to panic. Currently, China’s plea for cyber sovereignty is just one of a few voices, within the vast ocean of international thought. Alongside Wang’s speech, other conference attendees laid down their ideas for the future of the internet in China.

Google bid for the reinstatement of their services in the country, a rhetoric for which Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has also lobbied. They argue that, while Chinese companies enjoy free rein in Western markets, facilitating their growing success, external organizations are denied the same luxury in China.

With this response coming from some of the webs most influential people, it’s difficult to imagine China will receive universally-endorsed cyber sovereignty anytime soon.If they attempt to instate the policy regardless, it will not grant them ubiquitous power, as the web can be an untamable beast.

For example, the proposed VPN ban is already fraught with problems.  As technology is constantly developing, antiestablishment software, such as proxy networks, are capable of transforming to combat every obstacle they face.

In simple terms: it’s really hard to ban a VPN.

Currently, there are several methods that Chinese telecom providers may employ:

  • IP Blocks. Blocking traffic coming from the IP addresses of known VPN servers.
  • Port Blocking. Filtering traffic from common VPN protocol ports.
  • Deep Packet Inspection. Scanning data packets as they pass through inspection points to identify VPN encryption.
  • Blocking VPN Websites. Blocking provider websites so users can’t install the software.

Fortunately, none of these are infallible. Residents of China will still have ways to bypass blocks and secure themselves from snooping – even if the government pressure increases.

What To Do if You’re Visiting/Living in China

For those already using VPN software in China, vet your provider now before any further changes can occur. Look for services that offer highly-customizable elements, to increase your chances of bypassing the bans.

VPN protocols are always advancing, and many already offer options to disguise data packets as alternative forms of encrypted code. For example, adjusting your traffic from the OpenVPN favored 1194 UDP/DP to TCP port 443 – which is commonly used by HTTPS – can fool port blocks and deep packet inspections.

The free and open nature of the internet community has long provided relief from authoritarian attempts to dictate cyberspace. While this online counterculture exists, any obstacles will be quickly addressed, and solutions developed.

Whether you want to unblock WhatsApp in China, access banned websites, protect yourself from data retention or prepare for the threat of cyber sovereignty, using the best VPN in China will grant residents freedom and access to the global web.

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