The Internet is often described as a space for creativity, empowerment, and knowledge that builds on a vision of freedom and borderless connectivity. It is also regarded as an enabler of different human rights, with some even considering access to the Internet as a human right itself. But is this perspective shared by all, and what is the situation like in China?
A Platform for Expression
At its core, the Internet is associated with freedom of expression. As a platform it bolsters the right to speak, share views, and thus by extension the right to search for and access information. The Internet’s ability to connect people also makes it an important tool for networking, association and mobilization. Accordingly, it is crucial to safeguard the right to association and mobilization on online platforms. In addition, there is an expectation that the Internet can be a force for development, alleviate social and economic inequalities, and promote social and economic rights.
For human rights activists the Internet has enabled greater possibilities to speak out against injustices, human rights violations, and official misconduct, and to engage in sousveillance of police brutality and repression. But, on the other hand, as the case of Edward Snowden revealed, the Internet enables governments and corporations to engage in surveillance that threatens individuals’ right to privacy.
Protecting Digital Rights
The growing importance of networked devices in people’s lives and growing concerns over surveillance has led to a stronger focus on the Internet’s role within international human rights work. In 2011, the UN Special rapporteur on freedom of speech Frank La Rue released a report on the protection of freedom of speech on the Internet. The following year, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on the protection of human rights on the Internet. Snowden’s surveillance revelations led to discussions in the Human Rights Council, and the United Nations General Assembly then adopted the Right to Privacy in the Digital Age in December 2013. UNESCO has a range of important studies that address online freedoms and the challenges that issues of privacy and surveillance present.
Naturally, NGOs have paid close attention to and monitor these issues as well as the specific situation for human rights activists. For example, Freedom House publishes an annual report called Freedom on the Net. In addition there are a growing numbers of organizations and activists working to put pressure on Internet companies to protect human rights. Ranking Digital Rights has begun to rank international companies, including Chinese Internet companies such as Baidu and Tencent, on their ability to protect their users’ freedoms of expression and privacy.
The linkage between Internet and human rights became a contested issue in Sino-American relations after former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in 2010 put the issue of Internet freedoms on the international political agenda. China’s 2010 White Paper on the Internet can thus be read as a reaction to her speech, and a growing Chinese concern that Western governments were supporting online activism, a concern that intensified after the Jasmine revolution in the Middle East in 2011. The White Paper was the first attempt by China to outline its position and views on the role of the Internet for an international audience. It reaffirms the importance of the Internet for economic development, but in no uncertain terms also emphasizes that the Internet is under Chinese sovereignty and that national security issues legitimize regulating its use.
This means that China has had no qualms in censoring the Internet, preventing its citizens from accessing ‘harmful’ content on foreign websites, and blocking access to international social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, while at the same time using new technologies for propaganda purposes and to increase government efficiency. Many of these measures thus prevent Chinese citizens from enjoying freedom of speech and freedom of information online. In the most recent Freedom House report China is rated ‘not free’ and received the lowest score of all the countries under review.
Under President Xi Jinping we have seen a tightening control of the Internet through new regulations and laws, including the adoption of a Cybersecurity Law in November 2016 that further limits online freedom and strengthens surveillance, crackdowns on bloggers and human rights activists, and the establishment of a new body, the Central Leading Group for Cybersecurity and Informatization to oversee developments in this field. In several speeches and forums over the last few years, Xi Jinping has articulated his vision of a “strong Internet nation (wangluo qianguo)” where Internet sovereignty (wangluo kongjian zhuquan) is the keyword. As he put it in a speech in 2014: “Cybersecurity and informatization concern national security and national development, and are a major strategic issue for the work and lives of the masses. [We] must … seek innovation and development, working hard to build our nation as a strong Internet power.”
The Chinese vision of the Internet thus embraces its economic potentials while at the same time limiting freedom of speech and controlling any attempts to mobilize. It is obvious that China does not embrace a vision of the Internet as a borderless and free space for creativity and connectivity where individuals can engage in free, and if they so wish, anonymous speech, and where they can use different tools, for example encryption tools, to protect their privacy. Online access is not regarded as an indivisible human right but as a conditional right conferred on Chinese citizens so they can help further national goals and economic development, which allows them to engage in harmless and non-political activities such as shopping and entertainment. The official vision is not shared by the small but quite vocal group of Chinese activists who try to escape the Great Firewall and dream of a free Internet.
Marina Svensson is a Professor of Modern China Studies, at Lund University.