Expert Speak Digital Frontiers
Published on Jun 07, 2017
Two predominant interests guided China's earlier approach to cyber sovereignty.
Should BRICS rally around China's call for cyber sovereignty? Beijing for a few years now has been steadily pushing for the idea of cyber sovereignty — the idea that every state has the right to govern not just the infrastructure of the Internet within its borders, but also the content that flows through it. Xi Jinping and Lu Wei, the former head of Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) have shared China's vision for information sovereignty with the outside world, warning against US dominance in the cyberspace. This year, with the enactment of the national cybersecurity law and the release of a position paper on global cyber norms — both firsts for the nation — Beijing is looking both inwards and outwards to enforce its agenda in cyberspace. With the next BRICS summit scheduled to take place in September this year in Xiamen — India, Brazil and South Africa (IBSA) will have the option of acceding to the Sino-Russian agenda to reinforce state control over the digital domain. Domestic developments within China that indicate towards a softer position on cyber sovereignty have brought the IBSA to a crossroads. The grouping must strongly consider the opportunity of reaching a consensus with their partners to make a play for the creation of global norms in cyberspace. While the UN Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) is currently at the forefront of setting the rules of the road for responsible state behaviour in cyberspace, a BRICS consensus on cyber norms can be a formidable one in the global discourse. This is true for two reasons. First, the number of internet users across BRICS economies despite only two countries boasting an internet penetration rate over 50% (Brazil and Russia) is still enormous. An agreement and a potential plan of action between these economies be it on reform in internet governance institutions, combating cyber crimes and terrorism or protecting user privacy can be meaningful. Second, all the BRICS countries had a pivotal role to play in the successful IANA transition last year that resulted in the US government forfeiting control over ICANN — the body responsible for running the infrastructure layer of the Internet. The IANA transition was proof that BRICS states can play a defining role in cyber diplomacy.

With China hosting some of the biggest internet companies and becoming a leading provider for hardware around the world, the US is no longer the only dominant player in the market.

Western countries such as the UK are enforcing laws to increase government control over the Internet to preserve national security while China softens its stance, even recognising the role of different stakeholders in administering the Internet. Beijing is likely willing to concede its position on primacy of the state over cyberspace to support Chinese companies, increase their user base and welcome foreign investment. With an intention to appease foreign companies, an official of the Chinese administration during the release of its position paper, International Strategy of Cooperation on Cyberspace, earlier this year, noted that the Chinese internet is 'fully open' as long as companies comply with the law and do not undermine national interests. As China looks to prioritise individual rights through enforcement of the national cybersecurity law by requiring foreign service providers to store sensitive data domestically, countries such as India or Brazil can find China's new cyber sovereignty outlook more agreeable than before. Two predominant interests guided China's earlier approach to cyber sovereignty. First, that its citizens must not be exposed to opinions online that the state would deem harmful or against national interests. Second, that US and other western powers must cease to influence the governance of the Internet. BRICS states should ideally stay clear of the first requirement and not agree to impose any form of excessive censorship similar to China's Great Firewall. BRICS economies will have to weigh their interest to maintain national security against the economic necessity to keep their digital markets open. As for countering US dominance over the Internet, it is likely that BRICS states would be willing to commit to principles requiring increased participation from emerging economies in ICANN and other standard setting bodies. China's new vision for cyber sovereignty as expressed in their position paper is couched in different terms. China is keen on encouraging cooperation between states to ensure security and stability over cyberspace. This is a welcome change. Beijing's biggest concerns this time around is to prevent outside interference in any form including espionage, surveillance or by undermining the integrity of supply chains. In light of recent events such as the alleged DNC hack and the spread of the WannaCry ransomware, these concerns may not be unfounded. Increased militarisation of cyberspace has put many countries on the edge, with many experts calling for the US National Security Agency (NSA) to take responsibility for the proliferation of the WannaCry malware based on the EternalBlue exploit developed by the spy agency. In this backdrop, it would be prudent for the BRICS countries to assert agency over the ICT infrastructure while not straying from the democratic principles of an open Internet. This is the right time for the BRICS to arrive at a middle ground in their internet governance norms with the intent of influencing global cyber norms.
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