Understanding Why Some Say China's Internet Model Should Be Stoppped

Nov 2, 2020

Experts say China appears to be winning the technology infrastructure war and has signed more than a dozen memorandums of understanding with countries around the world. A new report from the Council on Foreign Relations recommends the U.S. take steps to advance its own internet model and create a digital trade zone.

Through the Digital Silk Road (DSR), China is expanding its technology infrastructure footprint with hopes of gaining a greater influence in emerging and developing countries, according to to the Eurasia Group, a political consultancy firm.

The Hill explains the DSR is a private venture with support from the Chinese government. One such technology company is Huawei. It has a presence in more than 170 countries, including many in Europe.

Why China's Internet Model Is Problematic

Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Rob Knake says what's wrong with China's internet is that it's highly censored, state controlled and a platform for surveillance. Knake wrote a CRF report that proposes a digital trade zone. He worries China is reshaping the internet in a way we won't like.

China is exporting its model abroad, according to Knake. "Throughout Asia, throughout Africa. They're not only applying the technology to do that, they're also helping build out the next generation of networks that will provide data to those countries that will connect to the internet," he says.

University of Cincinnati Political Science Chair Richard Harknett is equally concerned with the Chinese internet model. "What we are facing if the west does not defend and promote the original structuring of the digital space, is the likelihood that we're going to move toward one that's dominated by the Chinese model."

Harknett says China's internet is built on information control, while the U.S. internet is built on information dissemination. He can see why some countries like China's model because it's easy to control the flow of information and it's cheaper.

What Should The U.S. Do?

Knake says the U.S. needs to create a digital trade zone where goods and services that are digital can move freely but also source the hardware that will make the digital world run.

He recommends the U.S. start recruiting countries. "India is an absolutely critical player. The Indian government has expressed a lot of interest in being part of the supply chain for digital goods and services for the democratic world," Knake says.

Others the U.S. should get on board are Europe, Canada, Mexico, and "fence-sitters" like Brazil, Indonesia and Japan, he says.

UC's Harknett thinks one internet model will win out in the end.

"I don't believe that it's necessarily a 'splinternet' per say because I think one of these two models is actually going to come to dominate," he says. "And so, if the U.S. and its allies understand they're in a competition, the promotion of an internet that at its core continues to be oriented towards information dissemination rather than control, that can continue to win out."