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November 18, 2013, by Editor

A New Internet World, A Neo-Authoritarian Model of Internet Governance

Written by Min Jiang.

Following the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China held in Beijing from November 9th to November 12th, 2013, news arrived that the government wants to control its web even more (Mozur, 2013).

Despite the spectacular growth of the Chinese Internet in the last 25 years – the explosion of China’s Internet population from 0.62 million in 1997 to 591 million in 2013 (CNNIC, 2013), the rise of such Chinese online giants as Baidu and Tencent (Jiang, 2012), and popular use of the Internet for social justice and digital activism (Yang, 2009) – the Internet in China remains synonymous with censorship and control (Deibert et al., 2011). As we enter a new Internet world no long dominated by liberal democracies but by pervasive surveillance and filtering, an informed understanding of the neo-authoritarian approach to Internet governance is critical. This post discusses the neo-authoritarian Internet governance model based on a brief analysis of China’s Internet development and policies in the past 25 years.

Neo-authoritarian Model of Internet Governance

Existing normative models of Internet governance such as code-centric, market-centric, state-centric, self-governing and transnational models (Solum, 2009), I argue, are inadequate to explain the experiences in many populous transitional states and regions including China (home to 591 million Internet users), Russia (77 million Internet users), Iran (33 million Internet users), and much of the tumultuous Arab world. The percentage of the world’s Internet population living in countries where the press is ranked by Freedom House (2012) as “not free” is 35% (Internet World Stats, 2012). In addition, traditional liberal democracies, notably the U.S., have moved closer to such an authoritarian model in light of the recent Snowden’s revelations of NSA massive surveillance activities. As more of the world’s population moves online and more aspects of our lives become mediated through the Web, issues of Internet governance assume an increasingly central place in media research, practice, and policy.

Compared to other normative Internet governance frameworks, the neo-authoritarian model maintains moderate market competition, but prioritizes state information control by keeping state-ownership of network infrastructure, promoting government-sponsored Internet firms, and substantially limiting individual freedoms online through propaganda, surveillance, and censorship. The failure to incorporate neo-authoritarian online experiences into normative models of Internet governance often expresses itself in such popular rhetoric as “liberation by markets” or “liberation by technology”. Depicting the market and Internet technologies as self-driving or innately liberating not only runs against empirical evidence (Morozov, 2011), but also leads governments, users, companies to fundamentally abandon their responsibilities in shaping laws, rules, and norms to protect user rights and freedoms.

Three Stages of Chinese Internet Development

Guided by a state-directed and market-oriented approach, the evolution of the Chinese Internet in the past 25 years can be divided into three major phases: pre-WTO era (1987-2000), post-WTO era (2000-2010), and state corporatism era (2010-now). In the first phase, Beijing built the basic Internet infrastructure and started to open the floodgate for commercial use while mitigating political consequences. In late 1990s, China had its first “Internet wave” when a carnival of commercial Internet startups grew into the dotcom bubble, followed by its eventual dramatic burst. In the second phase, market liberalization went hand in hand with increasingly sophisticated state Internet regulation. Upon joining the WTO in 2000, Beijing not only opened its market to foreign investors, but also quickly implemented a torrent of legislations to keep the Chinese Internet in check. In the third phase, state policies start to display much stronger state corporatist tendencies. Prompted by Google’s move in 2010 not to censor its search results, Beijing issued its first Internet white paper The Internet in China (SCIO, 2010) and promoted the consolidation of cyber policymaking authorities and a flurry of state-sponsored Internet projects including state-sponsored search engines (Jiang, 2012).

To be sure, the policy orientations associated with these three phases are by no means mutually exclusive. In fact, a combination of liberalization, regulation, and state-capitalism has been deployed simultaneously from the beginning, although the tenor of each developmental phase differs. Overall, Beijing has consistently extended a “guiding hand” into the virtual sphere, tightening or loosening regulation depending on the sociopolitical circumstances of the time, yet firmly committed to growing its economy while boosting its propagandistic capabilities.

Implications of Neo-Authoritarian Model of Internet Governance

The neo-authoritarian model of Internet governance has long-term implications for Internet users, firms, governments, and global Internet governance. I outline these with reference to Chinese Internet development: 1) contention between communication verticality and horizontality; 2) hybridization and privatization of censorship; 3) commodification of online propaganda and state-corporatism in cyberspace; 4) neoliberalization and instrumentalization of citizenship, and 5) export of authoritarian networks and values.

First, China’s Leninist state media system, characterized by communication verticality, faces considerable challenges from horizontal, people-to-people communication facilitated by an expansive China Web. Leninist media, employed for the party-state’s propaganda and agitation, are “kept” instruments to atomize individuals, disseminate state policies, and foster national unity. This few-to-many “mass communication” view of the 20th century that dominates Chinese state media has persisted into the Internet age, running against the myriad lines of communication between Web-connected individuals.

Second, to prevent large-scale circulation of messages critical of the state and grassroots protests organized via the Web, China’s one party-state has implemented a wide range of censorship mechanisms. Although such centralized measures as the “Great Firewall of China,” blunt suppression of dissidents, and regulation of cyber cafes are often highlighted in Western media, more extensive Web filtering has been outsourced to large Internet firms, both domestic and foreign, operating inside China. Contrary to Western media’s emphasis on the GFW, self-censorship by Internet firms and users is more extensive and difficult to overcome.

Third, to complement measure of Web censorship, state Internet firms have also been propped up to extend and commodify propaganda online. For instance, People’s Daily Online, the online extension of party mouthpiece People’s Daily, has not only developed its own online forums, blogging and microblogging services, but has also taken the “digital party press” to Shanghai Stock Exchange. Despite its failed attempt to create a successful national search engine, People’s Daily Online has managed a market capitalization of 3.35 billion USD (Sina, 2013), putting its worth ahead of New York Times’ 2.02 billion USD (Yahoo, 2013). While the commercialization of state online media may produce certain unintended consequences, their party affiliation is unlikely to change.

Fourth, various forms of state-led capitalism have created, on the one hand, enormous state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and large numbers of market-oriented private enterprises, and on the other, a desired form of citizenship that celebrates material wealth, happiness and nationalism with little regard to individual rights or political freedoms. Guided by fundamentally utilitarian principles, the Chinese state’s Internet development is seen as “useful and conducive to economic and social development” (SCIO, 2010), but not an extension of individual freedom and a marketplace of ideas. Consequently, while Internet infrastructure and access have improved and grassroots activism can sometimes find its voices online, netizens’ political rights and power are not institutionally recognized and are routinely restricted.

Lastly, the economic success of China’s state-led capitalism has paradoxically boosted its authoritarian networks and given the regime currency to export its authoritarian values. Not only has the Chinese government been the purchaser of surveillance tools from Western companies like Cisco (O’Brien, 2010), it has also lately become an exporter of surveillance technologies to other authoritarian countries such as Iran (Stecklow, 2012). More subtly, the “China Model” has been touted on world stage (e.g. Li, 2013) as an alternative to Western democracy while more dire consequences of authoritarianism and neoliberalism in China have been brushed aside.

Conclusion

China’s Internet governance model, which can be labeled “neo-authoritarian,” combines expansive market development, extensive surveillance and political censorship. Despite increased access to information, public speech, and opportunities for collective action through the Internet, the Chinese regime proves “resilient” (Nathan, 2003), employing a variety of means to manipulate the Internet and boost its own legitimacy. Not only does the stunning development of capitalism in China fly in the face of “liberation by markets,” Beijing’s sophisticated control of the Web also calls into question the “liberation by technology” thesis (e.g. Kalathil & Boas, 2003; Morozov, 2011). After all, capitalism may not need democracy. Nor is the democratization of Web access the same as democratization of society. In the next few decades, without any serious challenges to the current political arrangement, China’s Internet policy is likely to be dominated by a neo-authoritarian model of Internet governance. Traditional liberal democracies, especially the U.S., also face serious challenges. As the NSA scandal revealed, the U.S. government failed to lead by example or live up to its own promise of “Internet freedom” that it so hypocritically boasts elsewhere. As all powerful states and corporations are subject to power abuse, a neo-authoritarian model of Internet governance has emerged as a real threat to the utopia of an open, globally connected Internet that Internet pioneers have dreamed of. A new Internet world divorced from principles and actual practices of openness, tolerance, civility and liberty is a cyber nightmare.

Min Jiang is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, UNC Charlotte, and Affiliate Researcher at the Center for Global Communication Studies, University of Pennsylvania.

References

Deibert, R., Palfrey, J., Rohozinski, R., & Zittrain, J. (2011). Access contested: Security, identity, and resistance in Asian cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Morozov, E. (2011) The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. Philadelphia, PA: Public Affairs.

Yang, G. (2009). The power of the Internet in China: Citizen activism online. New York: Columbia University Press.

Posted in Chinese internet