Opinion / Web Comments

Interpreting the second wave of cyber security threats to China

By Xu Peixi (China.org.cn) Updated: 2013-03-04 18:05

The U.S. has two times challenged China in the field of Internet governance. The first challenge came in the form of a speech delivered by former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Internet freedom following Google's withdrawal from the Chinese mainland. The second came earlier this month as a private security firm, Mandiant, released a report accusing the Chinese military of stealing U.S. intellectual property.

I have discussed the first attack in an earlier publication. How to make sense of this new offensive -- a seemingly scheduled escalation -- of the previous hostility in terms of both rhetoric and substance? Observers feel reluctant to comment on the Mandiant report because they fail to understand the technical details. However, it is fairly easy to make sense of this dispute by reading the report itself and by some creative thinking.

An important point to consider is that the China-U.S. conflict over Internet governance can be traced back to the first World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) in Geneva, 2003. China insisted on the role of state leadership in Internet governance, while the U.S. proposed market leadership. Both countries had their own reasons. For China, the state plays an important role in development and market issues. State authorities also manage the media to maintain social stability. The U.S. will not loosen its grip over core Internet resources because it is a gathering place for a myriad of commercial interests.

The EU then offered to broker a deal between the two parties. In June 2005, the EU Council of Ministers outlined its position on Internet governance by proposing a new cooperation model to solve conflicts over the management of the Internet's core resources, namely the domain names systems, IP addresses, and the root server system. This new cooperation model stated that "the existing Internet governance mechanisms should be founded on a more solid democratic, transparent and multilateral basis, with a stronger emphasis on the public policy interest of all governments," and should be based on two principles ranging from "it should not replace existing mechanisms or institutions" to "it should contribute to the sustainable stability and robustness of the Internet." According to my European colleagues, this proposal was raised to bridge differences between China and U.S.

When I was reading about this in 2005, I failed to see the value of the proposal itself and the significance of the role of EU in this grand dispute because I disliked state interference. In retrospect, both the EU proposal and the EU's role were a viable solution that accurately reflected the multi-stakeholder principle in Internet governance. One would expect that the U.S. would respond positively to the EU's stance because it clearly stated that the new model should not replace existing mechanisms, but U.S. simply said no.

Why was U.S. so afraid of a European role? In 2005, Internet policy researchers did not fully grasp the reason why the U.S. preferred a G-2 mechanism when over 170 states and over 600 civil society groups who wanted to share their concerns. At that time, Internet policy researchers believed the U.S. did not approve of the word "public" in the proposal. After all, European values of public service media are inconsistent with the American view of private media. In hindsight, I believe that the U.S. dismissed the EU proposal because it will limit their power to manipulate public opinion.

This psychological mechanism works particularly well regarding free speech and cyber attacks. Holding leverage makes it easy for the U.S. to strike a deal with China alone. Microsoft, Cisco, Yahoo, Skype, Sun Microsystems are all big players. When there isn't a deal, challenging China is just as simple, easy, and cheap. China can be made to look like whatever scapegoat the U.S. public wants; it can be a hero saving world economy or it can be an aggressor coming to gobble the U.S. up. It is one of the few nations that U.S. foreign policy advisers can still apply their public animosity skills. However, having the EU act as a middleman would complicate this game, so the U.S. rejected the idea.

The only solution to the U.S.-China dispute over Internet governance in general, and cyber security in particular, is for U.S. policy-makers to realize that this is not a bilateral matter. Disputes like this are transnational in nature and involve many stakeholders. The failure at the WSIS summits has created lasting complications. The Google/U.S.-China row is only a very small fraction of the overall disputes, and this fraction is made visible by American officials because it played into their domestic needs.

After the failures of the 2003-05 WSIS negotiations, the world was increasingly led by U.S. foreign policy makers and commercial media companies. 2010 onwards has been particularly disastrous. In January 2010, Hillary Clinton delivered a well-known speech at Newseum calling for more Internet freedoms. In March 2010, Google showcased its formal withdrawal from China citing cyber attacks. In May 2010, the Pentagon launched the U.S. Cyber Command, and in May 2010, the U.S. State Department gave 1.5 million dollars to the so-called Global Internet Freedom Consortium directly affiliated with Falun Gong. In June 2010, computer malware Stuxnet -- widely believed to be created by U.S. and Israel -- was discovered in Iranian and Indonesian computers. In May 2011, President Barack Obama signed an executive order laying out cyber-war guidelines, and two weeks ago, Obama signed a new executive order to strengthen cyber defenses. Most recently, Mandiant released its report titled "APT1: Exposing One of China's Cyber Espionage Units".

Motivated by U.S. attempts to weaponize Internet, nations such as the U.K., South Korea, Germany and Iran followed suit to increase cyber war capabilities. The more energy the U.S. wastes on accusing and attacking others, the more the world community feels threatened by the U.S. monopoly on Internet governance. The more other nations challenge the U.S. in forums such as ITU, the more U.S. state authorities and businesses find it necessary to create a scapegoat. U.S. concerns ranging from creating jobs in the Pentagon to bringing jobs home through trade wars will only hurt global economic growth. It is not the way the world works. It is much ado about nothing.

The author is associate professor at Communication University of China.

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