Alibaba founder Jack Ma and Israeli-American author and innovation expert Yossi Dashti shake hands at the World Internet Conference in 2018. Image by Ryry1984 available at Wikimedia Commons under CC license.
For nearly a decade, since its inaugural session in 2014 under the now-disgraced former cyber czar Lu Wei (鲁炜), the World Internet Conference (WIC) has sought a place as a globally influential forum on cyberspace development – and a platform for China’s state-centered vision of the future around the concept of cyber sovereignty. The path has not been smooth.
The first WIC quickly sank into ignominy as the “ridiculous draft” of a one-sided declaration calling for cyber sovereignty was slipped under the hotel room doors of attendees shortly before midnight. Among the draft’s stipulations was “respect for the cyber sovereignty of all nations.” The next year, an address to WIC by Xi Jinping was streamed on YouTube, a platform banned in China, and attendees were issued special passes allowing them to bypass the Great Firewall. One report shrugged the event off as “the world’s most confusing tech conference.”
This week, amid the latest WIC in Zhejiang province, China has announced the formation of an organizational body to promote the core agendas the conference has – poorly, to date – advocated.
The “World Internet Conference International Organization” (世界互联网大会国际组织), headquartered in Beijing, will likely become a permanent point of international activism on the cyberspace-related agendas of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). A report from the official Xinhua News Agency described its mission thus:
. . . building a platform for global internet discussion, construction, and sharing, promoting international community responses to the trends of digitalization, networking and [artificial] intelligence, meeting security challenges, seeking development benefits, and building a community of shared destiny in cyberspace.
In a congratulatory message Tuesday on the founding of the organization, Xi Jinping said that cyberspace “concerns the destiny of mankind” (人类命运), a reference to one of his core foreign policy concepts, and that “the future of cyberspace must be created jointly by all countries of the world.”
What exactly does all of this mean?
Essentially, this is about China’s leadership seeking to influence the foundational values of the global internet, turning the emphasis in internet governance to state interests over individual rights to access, freedom and participation. This vision of cyber sovereignty, which China has championed in particular with Russia, has both domestic and international implications, ultimately making for an internet that is “less open and free,” and more amenable to the agendas of authoritarian states (making specious authoritarian claims to democracy as state-centered multilateralism).
Specifically, the legitimation of China’s value standards for cyberspace globally would mean green-lighting the full range of approaches the CCP now takes to information control and surveillance, throwing off international criticism on the grounds of rights violations. Rights, after all, would be vested in the state.
Preliminary reports on the “World Internet Conference International Organization” suggest that it will comprise several key bodies, including a secretariat (秘书处), a board of directors (理事会), a high-level advisory board (高级别咨询委员会), a professional committee (专业委员会) and a general meeting (会员大会).
How will this work?
In all likelihood, following the typical practice of the CCP, the secretariat will be operated from directly within the Cyberspace Administration of China, meaning that the WIC body, though ostensibly an independent organization, will be a limb of the Party’s formal external propaganda apparatus.
The various committees under the organization, including the secretariat, will likely seek what appears to reflect broader representation. They will be populated with management and experts from the Chinese internet sector, but also with unwitting foreign faces. These will be tech bosses and experts who can bury their heads, rationalizing their participation as necessary lobbying and networking (How can we ignore such a huge market?), even as they are being flagrantly exploited as token supporters of the CCP’s cyber agendas.
One of the first responses the international community should have to the fledgling WIC organization is to watch its formation closely, encourage transparency about its key agendas, and hold companies, organizations, and individuals responsible as they decide there is no downside to signing on.
According to state media coverage, “more than 100 institutions, organizations, companies, and individuals in the internet field from nearly 20 countries on six continents” have already joined the World Internet Conference International Organization” as members. They reportedly include “world-renowned internet leaders” (享誉全球的互联网领军企业), “authoritative industry bodies” (权威行业机构), and even “Internet Hall of Fame inductees” (互联网名人堂入选者).
It’s time to start building the WIC Hall of Shame.