Can China Maintain “Sovereignty” Over the Internet?

Evan Osnos interviews Columbia Professor Tim Wu about the White Paper on the Internet in China issued by the government:

In its first white paper about the Internet, the Chinese government has put special emphasis on “Internet sovereignty,” which the Chinese press declares a new concept by which “foreign I.T. companies operating in the country have to abide by Chinese law.” But you’ve been writing about “cyberspace sovereignty” since the mid-nineties. So, what does this sovereignty-with-Chinese-characteristics really mean and does it differ at all from what other countries are doing?

The interesting thing is that the term “Internet sovereignty” originally had a meaning opposite to what the Chinese define it as. In the mid-nineties, some American academics proposed that, since it has its own rules, and its own citizens (of a sort), the Internet ought be considered “sovereign” in a way. If something is sovereign it means it is subject to its own rules, and generally not subject to the rule of other nations—Iceland is sovereign, for example. The Chinese obviously don’t agree with that theory—they don’t think the Internet is like Iceland, a self-governing land, so to speak. In this, the fact is that the Chinese are not alone. Most countries have by now assumed that Internet firms or content-providers must follow their laws, at least when it can be said that it has effects within their borders, or a physical presence of some kind, like a server. So the Chinese theory of “Internet sovereignty,” if poorly named, is a statement of private international law as typically practiced. (This is the subject of a book Jack Goldsmith and I wrote in 2006, “Who Controls the Internet?”). The big difference is the substance of the Chinese rules—which go way beyond the rules of any major country.


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