The latest frontier of conflict between Russia, China and the West is the Internet, with the Eastern allegiance looking to impose more control over the World Wide Web. The relationship between China and the Internet is well established, with the Great Firewall of China having taken on something of a mystical quality. But there is increasing indication that Russia and China will form a unified front to challenge the existing Western conception of the Internet.
Russia legislates on the Internet
Indication of this policy is formalized by a recent Russian law regarding data localization of Internet communications. This will come into effect on September 1, with the Russian authorities indicating that the intention of this law is to safeguard Russian citizens from the growing threat of foreign interference.
The law effectively requires companies hosting information online that is accessible to Russian citizens to store any data on servers that are physically located in the country. One doesn’t need to be especially knowledgeable about the way that the Internet works to understand that this represents a fundamental shift in the way that the World Wide Web operates.
Although there has been some hostility between Russia and the West, the largest Internet companies remain incredibly successful in most territories on the planet. Therefore, major players such as Google, Facebook and Twitter would effectively be required to move operations completely, or build data centers within Russia, if they wish to continue to conduct online business within the nation. If this is not the case, Russian Internet users will be blocked from accessing such content.
This is a pretty serious issue for major Internet companies in the West, but arguably a more important issue for the Russian people. While the Internet has been a double-edged sword in terms of information, there is still a transparency and variety to data on the web that vastly outranks any form of media that has preceded it, or which exists today. To effectively shut down a massive swathe of the Internet due to legislation that would appear to be pretty onerous is a shift in Russian Internet policy that veers towards the draconian.
Considering that this fundamentally changes the relationship between Russian citizens and the Internet, it is not surprising that foreign technology industries and civic activists have opposed the law. It was signed back in July 2014 by Russian President Vladimir Putin, and addresses Russia’s network security concerns in several distinct elements.
The law provides Russia with an additional tool for controlling information within its borders. This is a pretty chilling indication of Putin policy, considering the way that the Russian supremo has dealt with activists recently. Effectively, one of the primary purposes of this legislation is to enable the Russian regime to clamp down on any form of dissent. Considering critics of Putin, such as the former chess world champion Garry Kasparov, claim that Russia is effectively a one-party dictatorship at present, this doesn’t bode well for the future of transparency and democracy in the country.
Of course, both Russia and China can not unreasonably point out that the United States has been guilty of spying on its own citizens unconstitutionally in recent years. And the intelligence community has indicated that each of Russia, China and the United States has engaged in cyber warfare against one another. It would be extremely naive to paint the United States has the lilywhite keeper of the faith in terms of Internet privacy and security; if one is to split this issue into two sides, there have certainly been faults on both sides of the divide.
But the US government certainly hasn’t taken the step of brick-walling off large amounts of the Internet to the extent that Russia and China have engaged in.
The issue of data localization in Russia is merely one example of the overall efforts of the Kremlin to shape the future standards, rules, architecture and development of the Internet. This is a technology that has been created with the free flow of information in mind, so it can be considered, at best, extremely sad that Russia is now seriously challenging this concept.
Since Russia announced this new legislation, China has followed suit in implementing its own network security laws, allied to other extended national security policy. China has, of course, already excluded vast amounts of the Internet from the consumption of its citizens, and this has led to the phenomena of completely different companies dominating the Chinese internet landscape.
China’s broad-brush legislation
It hardly comes as a surprise then that China has passed legislation with a much broader scope than Russia’s data localization law. China has already enshrined the concept of Internet sovereignty in legislation within the country, and has outright banned foreign technologies in some critical sectors. China’s network security strategy intersects with its economic goals, and is now redolent of its overall conflict with the existing Western-driven world order.
Not only are there clear parallels between the two countries’ Internet policies, but both have also formalized this arrangement legislatively as well. During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s May 8 visit to Moscow, Xi and Putin both signed a pledge that the two nations would never engage in cyber attacks against one another. This once again indicates the extent to which governments are already engaging in massive cyber warfare, predicted by many analysts to be a key battleground in the foreseeable geopolitical future.
The coordinated effort of Russia and China to fundamentally alter the way that the Internet operates, particularly focusing on its existing governing model, will certainly face opposition. This is not an ethos that is supported in the West, and there are some extremely powerful and profitable companies who will inevitably strongly resist any such policy.
But although there have been faults on both sides of the ideological and economic conflict between the West and this new Russo-Chinese duopoly, the plans that the two countries have for the Internet is a worrying reminder of how much their outlook differs from the prevailing mindset in Western nations.