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Internet Bifurcation: Will the US-China Digital Arm-Twisting Splinter the Open and Free Internet?

The Internet controversy between the US and China is escalating. The Trump Administration is fighting against Huawei, TikTok and We Chat. China is pushing back with new export regulations for Chinese IT technology. August 5, 2020 the US State Department launched a “Clean Network” initiative, aimed to remove Chinese digital corporations from the global supply chain in today’s interconnected world.1 September 8, 2020 the Chinese Foreign Ministry replied with a “Data Security” initiative, aimed to enhance global cybersecurity in “Chinese colours.”2 So far, the UN was one of the main battlefields for US-Chinese Internet controversies. But now it gets much more concrete, and for the moment, the real theater of the digital arm-twisting between the two cyber superpowers is the continent of Europe.

In August 2020, US Foreign Minister Mike Pompeo traveled to four European countries (Slowenia, Czech Republic, Austria and Poland). He gave a strategic speech in Prague on August 12, 2020 where he attacked China and offered Europe membership in a new coalition of like-minded countries for a “clean network.”3 At the end of August 2020, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi traveled to five other European countries (Italy, Norway, the Netherlands, France and Germany). He delivered his strategic speech in Paris on August 30, 2020 where he rejected the “Clean Network” approach and recognized Europe as “a major force in a multi-polar world.”4

The two speeches from Prague and Paris did signal to the rest of the world that a strong cyberstorm is coming. The free, open, global and interoperable Internet, as we know it since the 1990s, is moving towards an unprecedented stress test. An Internet Bifurcation is on the horizon.

Pompeo’s Pague Speech

In Prague, Mike Pompeo attacked the Chinese Communist Party (CCP): “The CCP lies, and makes those who tell the truth disappear. The regime has a Marxist-Leninist core no less than the Soviet Union did, and indeed, perhaps more so. The party has always put itself first. Its actions flow from its ideology. And it’s paranoid about free societies. What’s happening now isn’t Cold War 2.0. The challenge of resisting the CCP threat is, in some ways, much more difficult. That’s because the CCP is already enmeshed in our economies, in our politics, in our societies in ways the Soviet Union never was.”

He advertised the “Clean Network” initiative, which is aimed to remove Chinese companies from global supply chains in fields like apps, cloud, cable, stores and carriers. He called for an alliance “of countries and companies who refuse to sacrifice cybersecurity just to save a little bit of money” and argued that the growing threat needs a comprehensive opposition against China on all fronts at the digital battlefield. “We have to explain to our citizens the price free societies will pay if we don’t confront this threat. We have to explain what kind of scrutiny we must give to Chinese investment and why. And we have to talk to them about what sorts of alliances are needed to be built between the United States and Europe and around the world, and how we will retool to withstand and resist this threat.” He reiterated what he said in his Press Statement on the “Clean Network” initiative: “The United States calls on our allies and partners in government and industry around the world to join the growing tide to secure our data from the CCP’s surveillance state and other malign entities. Building a Clean fortress around our citizens’ data will ensure all of our nations’ security.”

The “Clean Fortress” language sounds like the “Iron Curtain” language, the former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill used in his famous Fulton speech on March 5, 1946. Churchill’s speech, a couple of months after the end of WWII, the drop of the nuclear Hiroshima bomb and the “Potsdam Agreement” from August 1945 (where Stalin, Truman and Churchill disagreed about the future of Europe) is seen today as the start of the “Cold War” between the US and the Soviet Union.5 Will Pompeos “Clean Network Fortress” mark the beginning of building a “digital iron curtain” which will split the global Internet space into two cyberworlds?

Wang’s Paris Speech

Wang Yi’s speech in Paris avoided any confrontational tone, but he was also clear that the Chinese understanding of cyber sovereignty has to be the starting point for enhanced digital cooperation. Wang said in Paris: “China firmly opposes any schemes to create a new Cold War, and will not allow any force to deny the right of the Chinese people and people around the world to pursue development and a better life.” Wang supported “multilateralism” and opposed “unilateral acts of bullying.” He called for free digital trade and criticized strategies of decoupling: “With China deeply interconnected with the world, decoupling from China means decoupling from development opportunities and from the most dynamic market.” Wang offered Europe a new level of cooperation: “We are prepared to work with the EU to uphold the effectiveness and authority of the multilateral system, promote fairness and justice, and maintain the international order. As two major economies in the world, China and Europe must stay committed to free trade, safeguard the stability of global industrial and supply chains, and play a key role in promoting development and prosperity in the post-COVID-19 world. China and Europe need to set an example of advancing global governance by jointly strengthening the UN’s coordinating role in international affairs. We need to reject the practices of putting one’s own country first at the expense of others. We need to jointly build a community with a shared future for mankind.”

The eight points of the “Global Initiative on Data Security” are carefully drafted and uses, inter alia, language from documents, adopted by the EU or drafted by the Global Commission on Stability in Cyberspace.

The Chinese initiative calls for an “open, secure and stable supply chain of global ICT products and services.” It says that “States should stand against ICT activities that impair or steal important data of other States’ critical infrastructure, or use the data to conduct activities that undermine other States’ national security and public interests.”. It invites states to “oppose mass surveillance against other States and unauthorized collection of personal information of other States with ICTs as a tool.” It rejects backdoors in IT products and services and calls on states “not request domestic companies to stare data generated on obtain overseas in their own territory”. If law enforcement agencies needs data to combat crime this should be done “through judicial assistance or other relevant multilateral and bilateral agreements” which would “not infringe upon the judicial sovereignty and data security of a third State”. In general, States “should respect the sovereignty, jurisdiction and governance of data of other States, and shall not obtain data located in other States through companies or individuals without other States’ permission.” And “ICT companies should not seek illegitimate interests by taking advantage of users’ dependence on their products, nor force users to upgrade their systems and devices. Products providers should make a commitment to notifying their cooperation partners and users of serious vulnerabilities in their products in a timely fashion and offering remedies.”

Wang’s reply to Pompeo’s attack looks very soft and diplomatic. It is not “tit-for-tat.” It is embedded in a long term Chinese strategy which looks at 2030 and beyond. However, the problem with the 8-point-plan is less the proposed language. The problem is the missing language. The initiative speaks about duties of states, but there is nothing about rights of individuals. It opposes “mass surveillance against other states” but doesn’t say anything about mass surveillance against citizens. It argues for an “open, secure and stable” Internet, but there is no call for a “free, unfragmented and interoperable” Internet.

What can be concluded from the two speeches? Is it “American Values” vs. “Chinese Values”? What about the rest of the world?

UN Roadmap on Digital Cooperation

Neither Pompeos’ “Clean Network”, nor Wang’s “Data Security” references explicitly the “Roadmap on Digital Cooperation”, launched by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on June 11, 2020.6 The UN-Roadmap is based on the report of a UN High-Level Panel, co-chaired by an American woman, Melinda Gates from the Microsoft Foundation, and a Chinese man, Jack Ma from Ali Baba. The Panel titled its final report “The Age of Cyberinterdependence.”7 Interdependence means that we all are sitting in the same boat. There is one world and one Internet. Political zero-sum games, as we know it from the 19th and 20th century, will see no winners in the 21st century. Efforts to escape from the interconnected world will have unintended and uncalculable side effects with high costs for all sides.

When Guterres launched the Roadmap, he said: “We are at a critical point for technology governance. Digital connectivity is indispensable, both to overcome the pandemic and for a sustainable and inclusive recovery. But we cannot let technology trends get ahead of our ability to steer them and protect the public good. If we do not come together now around using technology for good, we will lose a significant opportunity to manage its impact, and we could see further fragmentation of the Internet, to the detriment of all.”8

The Roadmap itself offers a mid-term-strategy for the way forward in eight areas—from digital inclusion and sustainable development until artificial intellicence and the building of an enhanced institutional mechanism as an IGF+.9

In his speech at the 75th UN anniversary, September 22, 2020, Guterres said: “Today we have a surplus of multilateral challenges and a deficit of multilateral solutions. National sovereignty—a pillar of the United Nations—goes hand-in-hand with enhanced international cooperation based on common values and shared responsibilities in pursuit of progress for all. No one wants a world government—but we must work together to improve world governance. In an interconnected world, we need a networked multilateralism, in which the United Nations family, international financial institutions, regional organizations, trading blocs and others work together more closely and more effectively. We also need an inclusive multilateralism, drawing on civil society, cities, businesses, local authorities and more and more on young people.”10

For the last three decades, globalization and digitalization were seen as the best strategy to solve the world’s problems. Zero-sum games were over. There was a strong belief that the world is moving from a system build around walls to a system build around networks. Based on a new spirit of mutual understanding and mutual trust after the Berlin wall came down, win-win strategies dominated global policymaking. The keywords in Guterres speech—“common values,” “shared responsibility,” “networked and inclusive multilateralism”—reflect this spirit.

But globalization and digitalization, which have created the complex networks with this new level of interdependence, have also created a new level of vulnerability. If somebody in the network doesn’t function anymore as expected or misuses its special opportunities to bring chaos and confusion to potential adversaries, the whole system moves at the brink of collapse. And part of today’s reality is also that the number of governments is growing, which feels that in new zero-sum-games they can win more than others. The risk is high, that we move into a world build around “fortresses”.11

Chained Globalisation

Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman introduced recently in “Foreign Affairs”12 a new terminology:“chained globalization.” They argue that “governments recognizing how many dangers come with interdependence.” But the problem is that “the economies of countries such as China and the US are too deeply entwined to be separated—or “decoupled”—without causing chaos. States have little or no ability to become economically self-reliant. Hawks in Beijing and Washington may talk about a new Cold War, but there is today no way to split the world into competing blocs.”

Under chained globalization, “states will be bound together by interdependence that will tempt them to strangle their competitors through economic coercion and espionage, even as they try to fight off their rivals’ attempts to do the same. In some ways, chained globalization makes the Cold War seem simple. The economies of the Western and Soviet camps shared few points of contact and thus offered few opportunities for economic coercion. The situation today is far messier. The world’s powers are enmeshed in financial, trade, and information networks that they do not fully understand, raising the risk of blunders that could set off dangerous conflicts. Accepting and understanding the reality of chained globalization must be the first step toward limiting those risks. Policymakers cannot cling to fantasies of either decoupled isolation or benign integration. Like it or not, the United States is bound to its competitors. Since it cannot break those bonds, it must learn to master them.”

In other words: It is impossible to remove the conflicts and contradictions. The big challenge is to manage the controversies by building bridges between very different value systems. How can this be done? Does the “UN-Roadmap on Digital Cooperation” offer a “third way” based on a “shared vision” of “universal values” via “networked and inclusive multilateralism”?

The heads of the 193 UN Member States, including China and the US, used the 75th UN-anniversary to adopt a Declaration on September 16, 2020, which includes a commitment to improving digital cooperation. It says: “Digital technologies have profoundly transformed society. They offer unprecedented opportunities and new challenges. When improperly or maliciously used, they can fuel divisions within and between countries, increase insecurity, undermine human rights, and exacerbate inequality. Shaping a shared vision on digital cooperation and a digital future that shows the full potential for beneficial technology usage, and addressing digital trust and security, must continue to be a priority as our world is now more than ever relying on digital tools for connectivity and social-economic prosperity. Digital technologies have the potential to accelerate the realization of the 2030 Agenda. We must ensure safe and affordable digital access for all. The United Nations can provide a platform for all stakeholders to participate in such deliberations.”13

Europe as Guardian of a Shared Vision for a Free and Interoperable Internet?

The language of this new UN-Declaration could have also come from Brussels. For years, the EU, which does not host big Internet corporations like the US and China, sees itself as a global guardian for an open, free, secure, safe, unfragmented and interoperable Internet. The EU is developing regulation which balances individual rights and freedoms with state duties and legitimate business interests. In the field of data protection, the European GDPR did have a tremendous global impact.

Already at the IGF 2018 in Paris, the French President Emanuel Macron argued against a polarization of the global Internet Governance discussion: “I believe we need to move away from the false possibilities we are currently offered, whereby only two models would exist: a complete self-management, without governance, and a compartmented Internet, entirely monitored by strong and authoritarian states.” And he added: “To be very politically incorrect, we are seeing two types of Internet emerge: there is a Californian form of Internet, and a Chinese Internet.” His conclusion was to take a “new path where governments, along with Internet players, civil societies and all actors are able to regulate properly.”14

The German Chancellor Angela Merkel used similar arguments in her speech at the IGF 2019 in Berlin: “We have to clarify what we mean when, on the one hand, we want to retain our digital sovereignty but, on the other, we want to act multilaterally, and not shut ourselves off. Of course, digital sovereignty is very important. But it may be that we all have come to understand something different by that, even though we are using the same term. As I understand it, digital sovereignty does not mean protectionism, or that state authorities say what information can be disseminated—censorship, in other words; rather, it describes the ability both of individuals and of society to shape the digital transformation in a self-determined way.” As an example, she referred to her home country: “We in Germany know that technological innovations do not just happen, that companies do not simply evolve automatically, but that they always need parameters and guidelines. That was the case in the industrial revolution, and it will need to be the same in the internet age. In other words, we need sovereignty over what happens. And so, if we are convinced that isolationism is not an expression of sovereignty, but that we have to base our actions on a shared understanding and shared values, then precisely that—a commitment to a shared, free, open and secure global internet—is in fact an expression of sovereignty”.

Merkel also positioned herself towards Internet fragmentation: “What would the consequences be if we went down the road of isolationism? To my mind, the consequences of an increasingly fragmented internet can never be good. They can be many and varied, but never good. The global infrastructure could become unstable and vulnerable to attack. There would be more surveillance. The state would increasingly filter and censor information. Perhaps the Internet and mobile phone networks would even be shut down in order to prevent the people from communicating. This means that an attack on internet connectivity, the foundation for a free and open internet, has become a dangerous political instrument. Attacks like this can deprive the people of their fundamental rights to information and communication. This turns the idea underlying the Internet, the idea of its inventors, completely on its head. And so we should all be determined to protect the heart of the internet as a global public good.”15

This spirit also guided the “State of the Union Address” by EU President Ursula von der Leyen on September 16, 2020, when she called for a Digital European Decade. “We need a common plan for digital Europe with clearly defined goals for 2030, such as for connectivity, skills and digital public services. And we need to follow clear principles: the right to privacy and connectivity, freedom of speech, free flow of data and cybersecurity. But Europe must now lead the way on digital—or it will have to follow the way of others, who are setting these standards for us.” Von der Leyen also was clear that Europe supports both multilateralism and multistakeholderism if it comes to the governance of the Internet: “We are firm believers in the strength and value of cooperating in international bodies. But the truth is also that the need to revitalize and reform the multilateral system has never been so urgent. Our global system has grown into a creeping paralysis. Major powers are either pulling out of institutions or taking them hostage for their own interests. Neither road will lead us anywhere. Yes, we want to change. But change by design—not by destruction. We know that multilateral reforms take time, and in the meantime, the world will not stop. Without any doubt, there is a clear need for Europe to take clear positions and quick actions on global affairs.”16

Von der Leyen announced a new European investment of 8 billion Euros into supercomputers. “This is why we want to focus our investments on secure connectivity, on the expansion of 5G, 6G and fiber. NextGenerationEU is also a unique opportunity to develop a more coherent European approach to connectivity and digital infrastructure deployment. None of this is an end in itself—it is about Europe’s digital sovereignty, on a small and large scale.”

The risk of a bifurcated Internet raises growing concerns around the world. It is not only Europe that is challenged in a new way to navigate through the stormy cyber waters. It is also Africa, Latin America and Asia. Just recently—in the August 2020 edition of the “Foreign Affairs” magazine—the Primeminister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, said: “Asia Pacific see it in their best interests to maintain good relations with both China and the US while supporting other regional powers. The entire region could pay a huge price if it has to pick a side, or if nations are forced to choose self-preservation over multilateral cooperation.”17

By Wolfgang Kleinwächter, Professor Emeritus at the University of Aarhus

He is a member of the Global Commission on Stability in Cyberspace, was a member of the ICANN Board (2013 – 2015) and served as Special Ambassador for the Net Mundial Initiative (2014 – 2016).

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Very informative Mark Datysgeld  –  Oct 12, 2020 8:40 PM

Professor Kleinwächter,

Thank you for the insightful read. I am bringing this article to my study group for us to further reflect on the implications of these events from a Global South perspective.

Kind regards,

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