Instead of being a common argument between a western corporation and China, it becomes more and more the origin of a high-profile conflict between China and the US about governance of the Internet and subsequently the degree of freedom which should be granted. Even though both powerful, the actors as as different as possible. China opened up to the Internet very late. Before, only some Internet connections were allowed and most of the traffic happened within a closed intra-Chinese network. Still today, China tries to censor and control the Internet as far as possible. The Great Firewall and a particular police task force to hunt down cyber-dissidents are only to of the tools the Chinese government employs. On the other hand we have the origin of the Internet, the United States of America. The Internet as concept as well as many of its later inventions have been made in the US, funded partially by the government. Therefore, it does not surprise that the US sees themselves as kind of protector of the Internet. While the founders of the Internet have been cyber liberalists – see for example the Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace by Barlow – the US’ attitude might have changed (especially under the pressure of companies and organizations such as the RIAA). However, the dispute between China, the US and Google provoked the US Secretary of State Ms Clinton to back up the freedom which should be granted to the Internet. This has been the starting point of a sound conflict between China and the US….again.
What are the reasons for the Internet becoming a ‘global powder keg’ (Klein)? As Klein and Mueller argue on the IGP blog, the lack of institutions which causes a lot of trouble and will eventually end in a major conflict is the cradle of disputes. If global institutions are not built and equipped with Internet governance policy making abilities we will face more conflict of this very nature. Mueller states that ‘[i]n summary, we lack adequate institutions for global Internet governance that would resolve conflicts and build solutions to common problems’. Having read several of their papers as basics for my research, I do appreciate these authors but cannot support their perspective. Talking about a global institution the most likely solution would be (and one of them mentions it) to put this institution under an UN umbrella (like the IGF or the ITU). Unfortunately, we need a functioning Internet and I doubt that any institution under UN umbrella can really manage such a sensitive matter as the Internet. Regarding the dysfunctional way the UN worked in the Cold War period, I would rather see these institutions in China than under UN umbrella (…). The Internet has been created and should be managed by technocrats and scientists. Too much politics involved pollutes the nature of the Internet (keeping in mind Lessig’s statement that the Internet has no nature because it was artificially created). Having a look at earlier ICANN struggles makes it quite obvious. The Internet to much politicized and I do not mean the content. The content is fine but I am not sure about the other two layers.
If not in the governing institutions, where do I see the problems causing the current conflict? Even though I would consider myself as a cyber constructivist rather than as a realist, the cause is the pursuit of power. The fight over the domination of world politics has just begun and China and the US will eventually find another issue to argue about. The Internet is just as good as any other matter to argue about. The withdrawal of Google (as a company dealing with the Internet) has just been a spark near the powder keg of world politics. If a large US newspaper company would have withdrawn from China due to the increasing pressure of censorship, I am pretty sure that Clinton would have argued about the importance of freedom of speech and media rather than the freedom of the Internet. There is and will be no real solution to this power-struggle. Sooner or later one side will collapse because this is and has been the only way power-struggles of this scale have ever been solved (..and I might argue that war was never the reason).
Speaking of war, China Daily featured an interesting article on the US hegemony linked to the Internet. In this article the authors argue that the Internet is abused by the US simply to strengthen their hegemonic status all around the world. Below a short paragraph from this article:
‘The control of the Internet plays a strategic role for US. Using the internet, the US can intercept information via the net, export US values and opinions, support a “Color Revolution”, feed the opposition powers and rebels against anti-US governments, interfere with other countries’ internal affairs and make proactive attacks on enemy’s communication and directing networks’
Three points about that. Firstly, the authors are right but all these activities are open to any other state which would like to spend vast resources in research and implementation. Of course, the US have advantages because they founded the Internet (longer history and professional knowledge) and the infrastructural as well as political backbone is situated within the borders of the United States. The Internet is free and open to all governments (mostly), therefore the US might have an advantage but accusing them pursuing hegemonic interests goes too far. The US as every other country which understands the role of the Internet will act in the same way.
Secondly, please do not blame that on the Internet again. We do not blame the water to carry military vessels and we do not blame the air because it allows stealth bombers to fly around the world. As soon as a attack carried out via Internet hits national infrastructure it is regarded as act of war. The same is true for a missile which hits the same critical infrastructure. If it is not about the Internet (and subsequently blaming that the US have to much grip on it) it is the same old song about too much US/ in the air – water – space – cyberspace. Who can blame them for trying to secure their status quo? I cannot, even though I am not a fan of American politics.
Lastly, control of the Internet != using the Internet to conduct attacks or subversive attempts to overthrow a government. You can seize territory with your troops but you are not able to control the storm so that the water will stop from destroying your vessels. I am aware of the fact that the Internet is unique and therefore my comparisons might lack coherence in one or the other point, but they are basically correct.
What is the conclusion? Neither Google nor the Internet are reasons for the conflict between the US and China. Businesses as well as the Internet are important issues when it comes down to International Relations but they are just among other things, sucked into the struggle of Power and World Politics.
What is the solution? Time. Time will bring collapse. Collapse will bring true hegemonic status to one of the players. You never know, probably exactly at this point in the future another actor will be ready to enter the struggle for political power in the world and I would not be surprised if it would be the European Union.