The WIC and China’s Strategic Architecture for the Internet

CGCS Director Monroe Price recently traveled to China. Returning, he shares his thoughts on the World Internet Conference and China’s shifting foreign policy of its internet policy.

China’s recent World Internet Conference (WIC), just hosted in Wuzhen, will have great significance—not necessarily in changing internet policies (immediately)—but as a sign of things to come. China is both seeking further to define its role in global decision-making and in testing approaches to building a global constituency for those positions that it develops.

I haven’t yet had a sufficient chance to talk with people who were there or to review any post mortems. What can be said was that this WIC was mammoth. Chinese internet companies and those in the region sent their top officials.  Western companies were represented sometime by leaders, but often by somewhat lower ranking managers.  It will be interesting to see which governments sent official participants or observers.

The rhetoric associated with the WIC was interesting as such language always is. The stated goal of the conference was “An Interconnected World Shared and Governed by all.”  “Interconnected” seems safely descriptive; “shared” can definitely mean many things; but “Governed by all” could be a crack at an internet with a structure China considers too supervised and designed by the West.  Another seeming anodyne phrase, but tied to substantial debate, is that the system should be guided or affected through “international rules under the framework of the UN.”  Here, with the reference to the UN system, including the ITU, is an arrow loaded in a contentious battle.

Then there are words that in this governance space are symbolic of other areas of global debate.  According to the conference mandate, “shared governance” would strengthen international cooperation in “cyberspace security, stability and prosperity.” This merely goes to show that the act of defining goals for the Internet can be and has been deeply contentious.

In these ways the World Internet Conference can be seen as part of China’s Strategic Architecture. I have written, in a book that Is soon to be published, about the China Internet White Paper of 2010 as another related example of China’s attempts to shape and articulate its goals for internet policymaking and strategic architectures.

I could define strategic architectures as efforts:

  1. a)to capsulate broad approaches to governance,
  2. b) which have national, corporate and societal champions seeking to have them enacted and strengthened.

In the West, there are many examples of such strategic architectures. They are often aspects of “internet freedom.” Beyond China, Iran and Russia each seem to have their own strategic architectures.

This competition for strategic architectures has spawned a variety of institutions. The World Internet Conference is an effort to introduce a new one. Think of the World Summit for the Internet Society, WSIS, the Internet Governance Forum, the Global Network Initiative and the Open Internet Coalition as examples.

This competition has led to what I would call “foreign policies of Internet Policy,” efforts by one country to affect the global and domestic strategies of another. Let’s observe and study China’s WIC as one move in this complex game of internet policy chess.


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