Great Power Internet Governance
Competing with China for the Soul of the Internet
by Marc Losito
China—above all else—is the preeminent issue on the U.S. foreign policy agenda. The competition between a rising China and the ruling U.S. will test the presumption that great power wars were obsolete. This great power war, however, will not be emblematic of the past. It has taken shape amidst global governance institutions and utilizes new domains of strategic terrain to compete without conflict, reform institutions and norms, and present an alternative international model—in lieu of the liberal world order—that reflects authoritarian priorities and values. In an era of democratic absenteeism, the problem is clear: autocracies have learned how to use the strengths of the liberal order to promote undemocratic ends. What is required is a unified and coordinated democratic response to promote the liberal ideals of a new, technology-driven world order. While the scope of the issue is both wide and deep, one arena for competition and cooperation stands out from the others—internet governance. At the center of China’s technological self-reliance ambitions—Made in China 2025—is the Chinese techno-autocracy model of internet governance. China has adapted to the factually unsophisticated truth that sophisticated innovation has changed the governance dynamics of the post-WWII new world order. Just as the Bretton Woods system, the United Nations, and the Group of Six were designed to accommodate the challenges and transitions of their days; the west must redesign institutions and systems to handle the immense contests of the 21st century and suppress the threat of Thucydidean competition.
For the past 50 years, the international community had hoped Beijing would become a prosperous, responsible stakeholder of the international order. Instead, Beijing has mobilized its newfound wealth and state-owned enterprises to engage in a techonomic cold war and reshape internet governance in the image of cyber sovereignty. Accordingly, President Xi intends to transform international norms and institutions to accommodate the Chinese internet governance model in ways that are diametrically opposed to U.S. and allied interests. In short, China has postured itself to launch a diplomatic assault on global internet governance while insulating itself from rebuke, revising supranational norms, and chipping away at liberal leadership throughout the rules-based order. If left unchecked, China will reshape internet governance by supplanting democratic values and standards with authoritarian principals rendering the digital commons less free, less prosperous, and less safe. What’s worse is the damage already done; China, Russia, France, Brazil, India, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia are all practicing some form of cyber sovereignty—even if it is masked as data localization. Due to China’s influence, the internet is increasingly becoming dichotomous to a free and open global society.
The Year of Techno-autocracy
In 2017, Xi Jinping—the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao—declared China would become a cyber superpower. However, when translated directly from Xi’s strategy, the term “cyber superpower” has a slightly more techno-autocratic feel of “building China into a national power in cyberspace.” Front and center of Xi Jinping’s concept of cyber superpower is the ideology of cyber sovereignty, the notion that the government of a sovereign nation should have the right to exercise control over the internet within its borders, including political, economic, cultural, and technological activities. The concept of cyber sovereignty has been extended to legitimize censorship, surveillance, and localized control of data. The concept is metaphorically represented by and referred to as China’s “Great Firewall.” China’s implementation of cyber sovereignty was executed along three interconnected fronts: information control, cybersecurity law, and international institution reform.
The Year of Orwellian Information Control
2017 was an especially strategic year for President Xi Jinping as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was set to hold its 19th Party Congress in Beijing in October. The event occurs twice in a decade and is responsible for electing China’s top leadership and setting its national policy goals and agenda. The 19th Party Congress would be a pivotal moment in information control, both in the run-up to the congress and the years after.
From March to October, China enacted strict controls—built on existing restrictions—for online speech and civil society. In March 2017, Tencent—a Chinese multinational technology conglomerate—was ordered by the CCP to shutter websites that hosted discussions on history, military, and international affairs. In July 2017, Apple Inc. was forced to remove virtual private networks (VPNs) from the China app store amidst government orders to crack down on illegal VPNs. These events culminated in August of 2017 in an Orwellian edict that eliminated anonymity and internet freedoms altogether. The information control law, enforced by the Cyberspace Administration of China, required all internet companies and service providers to surrender biographical customer data, provide government access to customer data servers, report illegal content to the government, and remove posts containing forbidden content. The thought police entered the cyber domain.
The Year of Draconian Cybersecurity Law
Cyber sovereignty relies on the ability to control data and infrastructure as a national instrument of power. The cybersecurity law passed in June 2017 aimed to achieve that end state through comprehensive security reviews of technology products supplied to the Chinese government and critical industries. As part of the Great Firewall, the law was designed to give Chinese firms an unfair competitive advantage due to the law’s broad ability to block a foreign technology product or service. Moreover, the new law required foreign entities to comply with mandates for data storage, data transfer, and the identification of user information consistent with Chinese domestic laws.
Trade organizations representing global economic and technology interests, particularly the U.S., E.U., and Asian companies called on China to delay the execution of the law. These requests were met with absolute refusal by the Cyberspace Administration of China, citing the legal scope of national cyber sovereignty applied to internet governance.
The Year of Doctor Frankenstein – Remaking Institutions
In Mary Shelley’s classic and cautionary novel Frankenstein, Doctor Frankenstein comes face-to-face with the reality of his hubris: the monster—a creation of his own experiments—turns against him and wreaks havoc on society. Retreating into the woods to hide from his creation, the doctor abdicates his responsibility to society and the monster kills several people. This timeless classic is an ominous blueprint, foreshadowing the impacts of retreating liberal democracies that give way to the creation of a monster—China—inside the institutions of global governance.
In 2017, the realities of U.S. isolationist foreign policies and the Brexit referendum were the opening China required—vis-à-vis the Frankenstein Problem—to play a stronger role in global governance issues. Evidence of the world’s oldest and most powerful democracies beginning to retreat would lead China to proclaim:
U.S. selfishness has caused the world to turn to China to play a greater role…U.S. withdrawal has led to greater confidence in and respect for China’s role, enabling China to move closer to the center of the world stage through participating in global governance and expanding its clout and voice in the world.
Since then, China has assumed active roles in global governance, signaling its potential to lead and challenge existing institutions and supranational norms. China rolled out its contemporary theory of cyber sovereignty at the 2017 World Internet Conference, lobbying governments and pandering to private entities that have an economic stake in the Chinese approach to internet governance. China has also used the U.N. to expand its agenda; utilizing open-ended working groups, the group of government experts, and the International Telecommunications Union to promote “social stability” through strict controls on internet and technology infrastructure. Finally, where China cannot find a wedge, it creates one; China created the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to coordinate and collaborate on digital technologies with like-minded nations and similar internet governance models.
Akin to the original Group of Six (G6) established in 1975 to shape liberal economics and guide multilateral action, a group of like-minded techno-democracies in 2021 could shape liberal internet governance. The G6, and its G7 and G8 iterations, served as symbolic and practical pillars of multilateral cooperation responsible for establishing norms and rules for the liberal world order. In the same spirit, the world’s leading technology-driven democracies can put internet and technology issues front and center on the world stage, allow for incremental change and progress, and provide transparency and accountability among each other and the globe.
The techno-democratic multilateral organization—first introduced as the T-12 by Jared Cohen and Richard Fontaine—would rest on three primary characteristics: democratic values, technology sector size, and economic parity. The U.S., U.K., France, Germany, and Japan qualify for ranking at the top in all three categories. The second tier of members is represented by Australia, Canada, South Korea, Finland, and Sweden with smaller economies but equally important technology and telecommunication sectors. Finally, India and Israel represent the third tier of members with vibrant economies and feisty technology sectors. Together, these members comprise the T-12 techno-democracies.
The key metric of a T-12 proposal is its feasibility to act as a counterbalance to Chinese and autocratic influence on internet governance. In this regard, the T-12 excels as a group of liberally minded, technology-driven democracies that can speak with a unifying voice on issues counter to China’s cyber sovereignty agenda. Simply put, the T-12 can accomplish what the G7 and G20 cannot because the latter two leave out key technology leaders and include illiberal states, respectively. Moreover, the unique combination of ideals, economics, and technology provides for flexible options across the soft power spectrum. Economic, diplomatic, and technologic aid between nations can act as both carrot and stick among techno-democracies and serve as tools to pry vulnerable nations out of the techno-autocratic sphere of influence.
The second metric of a T-12 proposal is its suitability for achieving counterbalance to the Chinese model of internet governance with sufficient speed. Much like the current G7, the T-12 will work in cycles of summits. While summits may seem to be a superficial gladhanding of political figureheads, the substantive work would take place under the T-12 umbrella at multiple sherpa conferences between summits. This method has proven to effectively gain consensus over time and achieve monumental, lasting impacts on the rules-based order. First and foremost, the T-12 must prioritize the development of vulnerable nations under the influence of techno-autocracy regimes and ensure the Internet remains a free and open forum. Without this a guiding priority, technology and internet related Sustainable Development Goals become an exercise in futility.
A final metric of a T-12 proposal is its acceptability on the world stage to compete with China. An immediate rebuke would likely come from China and Russia, the leading techno-autocracies with the most to lose. Additionally, there may be consternation from non-member nations who feel underrepresented by the leading T-12 countries. To the latter, there must be a promise of expansion upon greater liberalization. The T-12 should not be a static group but an ever-expanding organization that encourages all nations' techonomic growth. To the former, there must be negotiating space with China. The T-12, wielding combined economic and technology market power, should seek a cooperative and responsible relationship with China if they comply with democratic ideals of internet governance. While membership is unlikely, cooperation with China should be a significant agenda item.
The Year of Techno-democracy
Just as 2017 marked the Chinese year of techno-autocracy, 2021 is sure to mark the return of U.S. leadership in global and internet governance. While it is not entitled to lead, it will be expected to resume the democratic mantle of leadership and should assume this responsibility with humility. In an effort to retake and reshape internet governance, a Biden-Harris administration will need friends and allies to influence and ultimately regain control of the monster created. The T-12 techno-democracy group is the most novel yet practical means to combat illiberal efforts to remake the internet and corrupt the fractured institutions that govern it. Just as previous administrations have recognized and risen to the challenge of demanding landscapes, so too must the U.S. rise to the challenge of competition in the digital commons and fight for the soul of the Internet.
Marc Losito is a first-year Master of Public Policy candidate at Duke University and an active-duty U.S. Army Warrant Officer, focusing on the intersection of technology and national security policy. Marc holds a degree from Norwich University and has served in the military and SOF for 20 years specializing in counterterrorism, irregular warfare, and intelligence operations. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of Duke University, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense. You can find him on Twitter: @MarcAtDuke and on LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/mlositompp22
 Kania, Elsa, Samm Sacks, and Graham Webster. “China’s Strategic Thinking on Building Power in Cyberspace.” New America, September 2017. http://newamerica.org/cybersecurity-initiative/blog/chinas-strategic-thinking-building-power-cyberspace/.
 Segal, Adam. Council on Foreign Relations. “Year in Review: Chinese Cyber Sovereignty in Action.” Accessed November 20, 2020. https://www.cfr.org/blog/year-review-chinese-cyber-sovereignty-action.
 Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, Third edition (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1994).
 Hart and Johnson, “Mapping China’s Global Governance Ambitions”; Segal, “Trace China’s Rise to Power.”