China defends state control over internet at technology forum
Apple, Google heads to speak at conference following a year of toughened censorship.
China defended its vision of “internet sovereignty” on Sunday as it kicked off a state-run internet conference that has drawn in some of the biggest global names in technology – despite a year defined by tightened censorship in the country.
Both Tim Cook, chief executive of Apple, and Sundar Pichai, head of Google, will speak at the conference in eastern China, the first time the Silicon Valley firms have sent such senior representation. Jack Ma, head of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba will also speak.
Beijing argues that internet sovereignty gives each country the right to regulate its own internet – a vision that China has already achieved by operating a system with tight restrictions on connectivity to the rest of the world. It is now helping other countries develop similar online architecture.
“China stands ready to develop new rules and systems of internet governance to serve all parties and counteract current imbalances,” Wang Huning, a member of China’s top decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee, told the conference on Sunday in remarks reported by Reuters.
Mr Wang is an influential Communist party theorist who has argued for a strong state and has developed some of the country’s defining political slogans of the past three administrations.
The World Internet Conference in the Yangtze River delta town of Wuzhen, now in its fourth year, is designed to highlight Chinese technology and the Chinese concept of an internet controlled by the state. That vision is attractive to many governments nervous about the political impact of popular organisation, but runs counter to the Silicon Valley concept of the internet as an open forum.
The conference follows a redoubled effort from Beijing to tighten its control over the information accessible to its citizens.
Over the past year, China has vowed to eliminate virtual private networks (VPNs), the technology that allows people inside China to access platforms on the global Internet that have been blocked by Chinese censors, including Google, Facebook, and many of the world’s largest English-language newspapers.
Apple removed hundreds of VPN apps from its download store in China at the government’s request earlier this year. Speaking at the conference on Sunday, Mr Cook said that Apple’s App Store has earned nearly $17bn for 1.8m Chinese developers, who together account for about one-quarter of all developers’ revenue through the store.
This summer, China unveiled a new national cybersecurity law, part of a series of new laws that have strengthened the formal authority of the state over civil society and private individuals. In addition to legalising internet censorship, the new law requires foreign firms to store data locally and allow data surveillance by China’s security apparatus.
“The development of China’s cyberspace is entering a fast lane . . . China’s doors will only become more and more open,” China’s top leader Xi Jinping said in a note read out at the conference by Huang Kunming, the head of propaganda for the Communist party.
Typically, internet blocks are removed for the Wuzhen conference venue and other high-profile events hosted in China, so that the international executives in attendance don’t have to directly experience the annoyance of Beijing’s censorship controls.
The original founder and sponsor of the Wuzhen conference, Communist party Internet tsar Lu Wei, has disappeared into the maw of an ever-expanding political purge. Mr Lu, 57, was last month accused by the anti-corruption watchdog of “serious violation of discipline”, a catch-all term that can refer to corruption, abuse of office, or both.
He was a vocal advocate of “internet sovereignty” but was also assiduously cultivated by western internet and media moguls hoping to gain access to China’s vast market.
The Chinese conference comes as the US government takes steps to dismantle ‘net neutrality’ – the requirement that all traffic on the internet be treated equally. Large corporations are lobbying for the change in order to charge more for faster data delivery.