Now Any Government Can Buy China’s Tools for Censoring the Internet

Beijing’s ‘autocracy as a service’ is becoming the top choice for governments that want to control the internet

Photo: VCG/Getty Images

InIn 2010, Uganda passed a law that expanded the legal justifications for intercepting citizens’ communications. Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni had begun to see the internet as a real threat, and after the 2016 election and protests the following year, he turned to foreign companies like Germany’s FinFisher to monitor the devices of his opponents. When the Israeli firm NSO failed to decrypt the communications of Museveni’s U.S.-backed political rival in 2018, Chinese firm Huawei stepped in. Huawei was already the biggest communication supplier in Uganda, an unremarkable fact given that Huawei — like other Chinese companies — has been building infrastructure and relationships across Africa since 1998. Huawei’s local operatives went the extra mile to help Museveni surveil his opponent, resulting in dozens of arrests that stopped an opposition campaign from getting off the ground.

Huawei is not the only Chinese company working closely with the Ugandan government. In 2017, Ugandan media reported that the China National Electronics Import & Export Corporation (CEIEC), a firm wholly owned by the Chinese government, was selling Uganda a comprehensive cybersecurity solution, including technical capacity to monitor and prevent social media abuse. The Ugandan minister for trade said the country did not have the capacity to deal with cybercrime and, as national newspaper the Daily Monitor put it;This expression of dire need rang out to the Chinese like a song.”

When struggling countries call for help managing communications technologies, China answers. The results are human rights abuses and the export of a punitive, state-centered “sovereign internet.”

What rings clear is the assiduous cultivation and responsiveness of China’s technology firms to the worries of a smaller and much poorer country struggling to deal with the internet. We don’t know how close the coordination is between Huawei’s local operatives and head office, and between tech firms and the Chinese state. We do know that Chinese officials have accompanied African intelligence officials to meetings with Huawei in the Chinese technology hub of Shenzhen, and that Huawei employees train and work alongside African officials on national cyber-surveillance teams in Uganda and Zambia, at least. We also know that when struggling countries call for help managing communications technologies, China answers. The results are human rights abuses and the export of a punitive, state-centered “sovereign internet.”

FFor companies that need specialized IT but don’t have the expertise or capital, “software as a service” (SaaS) is a way to rent software, servers, and expertise. China has a similar offer to the governments that western countries have left to shift for themselves in a neoliberal investment landscape. “Autocracy as a service” lets countries buy or rent the technology and expertise they need, as they need it. It gets around the problem that being able to censor and surveil the internet isn’t just a technology challenge, but a management and human resource one. China offers a full-stack of options up and down the layers of the internet, including policies and laws, communications service providers with full internet shutdown options pre-installed, technical standards, satellites, cables, and infrastructure. This is possible because China has developed its own indigenous internet stack, sometimes copying the foreign technology it sought to replace. China even offers training in governance and strategy, consulting on writing a national strategy, and help building smart cities with its own full surveillance stack, euphemistically called “safe cities.”

The tantalizing principle of China’s offer to unstable governments is to re-assert the power of the state. China’s client governments are likely comforted by its insistence that national security means the stability of the current regime, and cybercrime can be defined as critics saying anything untoward about its members. Is this any different from how Western firms work hand-in-glove with their own governments to export political values alongside their products and services?

Compared to how most large countries use officials to help flagship companies land big contracts abroad, China isn’t unusual. France goes to bat for Total and Alstom. The U.K. will do what it takes to make sales for its arms company BAE. The U.S. and its oil companies, well, we all know there are essentially no limits there. But what makes China’s approach unusual is that it’s not just interested in access to markets for its firms, but explicitly in reshaping the politics of the countries it operates in, and in ways that are directly damaging to human rights. This is why Chinese firms can spend so much time and effort helping weaker governments to be more effectively autocratic.

China’s infrastructure investment in middle and lower income countries seems like a grab not just for economic but for political market share. It’s probably made possible in part by the significant financial subsidies some Chinese tech and infrastructure firms enjoy. China is betting that enough countries will find parts of its subsidized internet offerings so attractive, that they will commit to the whole package, creating a world that’s safe for autocracy and safer for China. And why do policymakers around the world find the China offer so attractive? It’s because China listens.

I recently met a communications regulator from an emerging economy, who’d just returned from a trip to China. The most immediate issue for them was how to afford and use 5G networks, and Beijing had offered practical use cases. Then the regulator asked me where Western companies like Ericsson, Nokia and Alcatel were when it came to infrastructure investment — a question that is being asked in capitals around the world. Countries are trying to find a smart way to navigate the next few decades in an increasingly dangerous world. They can only pick from what’s available.

Autocracy as a service may not be the best option, but it’s the most widely available and probably the cheapest. China’s “digital Silk Road” is a small subset of its “Belt and Road” investment strategy, which is designed to make China the nexus of global trading relationships. It answers the call for cheaper infrastructure with political control over how that infrastructure can be used. The digital Silk Road finances and builds huge international infrastructure, including undersea cables and a planned alternative to the U.S. GPS satellite system. But countries don’t have to directly buy Chinese products and services to buy into China’s sovereign internet.

One way China seems to make life seem easier for resource-strapped governments is through its advocacy at international technical standards bodies like the International Telecommunication Union (ITU, also part of the U.N.) and the International Standardization Organization (ISO). At the ISO, China is attempting to have its norms on artificial intelligence adopted. At the ITU, China has for years been tussling with a U.K., U.S., Western tech firm coalition about how to set future technical standards for the internet. To many of my Western peers, just mentioning the ITU’s technical standardization work elicits exasperated shrugs. But amongst policymakers or regulators in middle-income countries or the global South, I see people’s eyes light up when they talk about the work they do there. What explains the contrast?

Developing countries can’t afford the cost of participating in the many industry bodies that set technical standards for work on the internet of things, quantum encryption or 5G. They have neither the manpower nor the money, and just want it all to happen in a single, ideally government-dominated forum. So when China supports the ITU in becoming a metastasizing “one-stop shop” for everything, and throws in attendance fellowships for regulators to boot, that’s popular because it solves a real problem governments have. Governments join the ITU to access the kind of information and know-how they wouldn’t be able to develop in-house.

The U.S. response is so deeply based in a hawkish, “new Cold War” stance that it can’t see that this isn’t a zero-sum game between China and the U.S., but a battle for hearts and minds literally everywhere else.

ITU technical standards are rarely obligatory in theory, but if you own a firm looking to sell communications infrastructure in a developing country, you will likely be ineligible to bid unless you can show compliance. So if China can make those standards reflect its view of how the internet should operate, the knock-on effect around the world is immense. As a result, China puts huge resources into standard-setting at the ITU. A U.K. attendee told me that the study group on protocols for fixed and mobile networks, with about 200 participants, has between 40 and 50 delegates from Huawei alone. The Financial Times reported more broadly that “Chinese officials offered business deals under the table to foreign companies in exchange for their votes on Chinese technical proposals. But you don’t need to believe allegations of graft to worry about how an ITU technical standard gets made; the discussions are dominated by governments and large companies, and even the ITU admits human rights and consumer protection specialists are rarely part of the process.

So much of how we view these issues depends on where we are standing. A Chinese official might well argue that they believe in their system, and are exporting the benefits to countries with less money and resources. And isn’t that what the West did, before it decided other countries were a pure extraction market and could fend for themselves? It all depends on where you are standing, and it’s notable how little of the U.S. debate on China’s internet ever thinks about why “autocracy as a service” is so attractive to so many countries.

U.S. officials focus on China’s ability to use its infrastructure investments in other countries to extend its spying capabilities. But the bigger problem is that China is successfully exporting to weak states the ability to build and sustain autocracy. That makes those countries unsafe for their own people, and the world less safe for all of us. The U.S. response is so deeply based in a hawkish, “new Cold War” stance that it can’t see that this isn’t a zero-sum game between China and the U.S., but a battle for hearts and minds literally everywhere else. While the U.S. is furiously locking China out of infrastructure and contemplating export bans on cutting edge technology like quantum computing, China is selling not just its kit, not just its services, but its whole model of “how to internet” to the rest of the world. And the rest of the world is buying it.

China has succeeded in presenting a version of the internet so attractive and compelling that it increasingly supersedes the version the U.S. sold a decade ago. Beijing’s next step is to dominate the design, via the ITU, of the “next internet.” In November 2020, the scoping of “Network 2030” project will begin at the World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly, in Hyderabad, India. The ITU is building an alternative internet,” a U.K. participant told me, “putting control back in governments’ hands. The ‘great firewall of China’ will be nothing compared to this.” And in the meantime, China’s A.I.-powered facial recognition offering is spreading, via ITU standards, around the world.

Internet censorship and shutdowns slow whole economies right down, and repressive countries with large youth populations are more likely to have revolutions. We need to shift our focus to the countries China has taken the trouble to engage with. And we need to shut up and listen. When it’s our turn to speak about the benefits of a human-rights upholding, open architecture internet, we have a good story to tell.

Jessica Dheere, of the non-profit Ranking Digital Rights, recently tweeted; I’ve heard in other forums ‘Oh, we have to have a better package to sell if we’re going to beat China,’ and I’m like, ‘Isn’t democracy a good enough package?’”

We do have a good package to sell to countries weighing up the options for their future internet. But we also need to put more money and more people where our principles are.

Irish writer based in London. Tech policy, possible futures, politics. @mariafarrell http://www.crookedtimber.org

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