By isolating its internet from the rest of the world, China has succeeded in securing a market for its own tech companies to profit and grow. Three decades after the implementation of this policy, Chinese companies are the only ones in the world able to compete on an equal footing with the American giants and get Western competitors to imitate their innovations, believes Luca Belli.
“China does not want other governments to control its people and its development. And it is not correct to see digital control only as social control, without considering the prospect of economic development. On both sides, it worked very well. [do ponto de vista dos objetivos chineses]”, Evaluates the researcher, professor at FGV Direito Rio and coordinator of CyberBrics, a project which studies digital regulation in the countries that make up the BRICS, a block formed by Brazil, China, Russia, India and the South Africa.
In Folha, by telephone, the Italian-Brazilian also spoke about data protection and freedom of expression.
How do you rate the Chinese government’s control over the internet? This control is much more a protectionist strategy than a social control. The Chinese government has embraced internet control from the start because it doesn’t want other governments to control its people and development. And it is not correct to see this control only as social control, without considering the perspective of economic development. On both sides, it has worked very well, as they manage to have social control and technological advancement that other countries cannot. The Chinese are the only ones currently competing with the United States, precisely because they have shut down and created a Chinese intranet. We cannot speak of the Internet, because in practice the Internet is a separate network from the rest of the world.
How then to explain the case of the Clubhouse, an audio chat application that was banned days after it was used by the Chinese to discuss issues such as the persecution of Uyghurs? This episode is a good illustration of the Chinese approach to technology. Initially, the Clubhouse was accessible without restriction, as is the case with most new technologies. The restrictions are only applied when a risk is identified by the Communist Party. During the first week, several debates began on issues considered critical, such as Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan. The problem arose when the Chinese CP saw the emergence of a critical mass of people debating these issues, something that could not be easily controlled. The Clubhouse has been blocked but is still accessible via VPN [redes que mascaram o destino final acessado pelo usuário]. Those who use VPN, however, are a small minority, which isn’t seen as a big deal. The concern is the emergence of uncontrolled mass debates.
What has helped China the most in technological progress? It was a process based on protectionism and huge public subsidies. If research generates good technology, the government gives billionaire contracts for startups to grow. It is a strategy that Europe is trying to emulate, 20 years behind schedule. All the speeches on European technological sovereignty essentially copy Chinese ideas and try to make them more in line with European values.
Is this how Western companies react to the Chinese advance? Today, Western technology seeks to copy Chinese models. The changes in WhatsApp, like the introduction of payments, are a clear copy of the WeChat system, the first to create a mega app that bundles several functions.
American companies are also trying to enter China. Google tried last year to create a search engine responding to Chinese censorship, but abandoned the project after massive opposition from authorities. Everyone would like to enter the Chinese market because of its scale: there are over 1 billion people connected. The profit potential is enormous. The Chinese are not against the entry of other businesses, but if you enter you must obey local rules.
Has Internet control grown over the years? Chinese technological development has allowed better control and more efficient enforcement of the rules. Ten years ago, it wasn’t like that. Technological advancements over the past decade have been enormous. In 2010, China was not at a comparable level to the United States.
In the 2000s, there were blogger conferences in China. Their role was very relevant. Then there was an evolution by limiting individual expression, by organizing the distribution of content online and by setting rules. Any country would like to have a digital environment with maximized human rights, but capable of avoiding the abuses that occur when a person can say anything. But the only way to limit abuse is through censorship. From a human rights perspective, freedom of expression is not an absolute right. And the American vision does not advocate absolute freedom of expression for human rights. Because if you can share anything on the internet, it generates more data for analysis, which creates more profit. We need to be more critical of both models.
Complete freedom of expression creates a huge difficulty that no one wants to solve, because the debate over content moderation is actually a fancy way of talking about censorship. It is a difficult choice. Are we going to censor to avoid problems? On the Chinese side, there is a simple view. The Chinese prioritize the efficiency and well-being of the Chinese community over individual requirements. Here is a cultural question. In countries with a stronger Western influence, much more importance is placed on the individual, individual freedoms, than on community and social stability. I’m not saying that one system is smarter than another, but that it’s worth avoiding simplifications. Today there is an international debate on digital sovereignty, which is relevant as governments realize that they have been digitally colonized by Americans.
How do you assess China’s handling of anonymity and data protection? Anonymity is illegal in China, and one of the reasons is greater social control. However, the lack of anonymity is not a Chinese peculiarity. In Brazil, the Constitution prohibits anonymity, and there is a law on data protection, but you only have to go to any pharmacy to find that your data is being collected in massive numbers, despite the law. In data regulation, there are two sides: the protection of individuals and legal certainty for companies and entities that process data. China is drafting a new comprehensive law on the subject, which is under public consultation and is expected to be adopted this year. A few weeks ago, a data security law was passed that creates criteria for determining what data should be left on Chinese servers and what criteria for storing sensitive information.
The Chinese government is very interested in it because the rules increase legal certainty and prevent political instability, which is good for business. In China, when a company’s data is leaked, there is a huge repercussion among users. The companies are very worried because on the Chinese intranet there is a lot of competition. He doesn’t just have a Google, a Facebook, an Amazon. For them, having negative media exposure means losing users.
Did internet control help create this contest? Clearly. The government is also adopting heavy antitrust measures, to allow more competition and to make it clear that it is not the companies that rule in China, which in other countries it is not so clear.
Russia is also trying to separate its internet from the rest of the world. Can you get it? No. There, the Internet didn’t start out as something closed, but as something free, although it had its limits. Trying to close later is much more difficult when you have a population used to opening.
Luca Belli, 35 years old
Researcher, professor at FGV Direito Rio and coordinator of the CyberBrics project. He holds a doctorate in public law from the University Panthéon-Assas (France) and a master’s degree in law from the Università degli Studi di Torino (Italy). He has written several books on Internet regulation.