Russia and China use BRICS summit to lament US “hegemony” in cyberspace

The governments of China and Russia have a track record of limiting their citizens’ access to certain information. That’s why their complaints that the US is using the internet for “neo-colonial ambitions” sound especially far-fetched.

To express the not-entirely-new sentiment, representatives of Moscow and Beijing, masters in conducting malicious cyberattacks against their adversaries, used the BRICS – their answer to the Western alliance – summit in Johannesburg, South Africa.

First came the words of Nikolai Patrushev, the influential secretary of the Russian Security Council, sometimes referred to as the man dripping poison into Vladimir Putin’s ear by the critics of the Kremlin.

"Today, internet governance remains virtually under the sole control of American corporations. Through such a monopoly in the field of regulating the internet space, the United States is promoting its neo-colonial claims to global dominance," said Patrushev, according to TASS.

He added that the US “will use all possible resources to stimulate protest activity in the ‘undemocratic,’ in their opinion, countries of the world."

Diplomatic hypocrisy

Paranoid musings are nothing new to Patrushev, a virtuoso in diplomatic hypocrisy, never known to mince his words. His Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, was a little more subtle, though.

Even though Wang made it clear that China “stands against any kind of tech or cyber hegemony,” he was quick to add that the web is not a new battleground of states.

Still, the Chinese official, just like Patrushev, said that the world needed to involve the developing countries in global network governance because cyberspace – the very same that Beijing censors at home – should be more “fair, open, safe, and vibrant.”

This is, to say the least, pure nonsense and hypocrisy. It’s worth stressing again: both the Russian government and the Chinese Communist Party have cracked down hard on internet freedom precisely because both governments see alternative sources of information reaching their citizens as a threat to their autocratic rule.

China hacking capabilities
China says it stands against tech or cyber hegemony. Image by Shutterstock.

A few weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Moscow and Beijing already called for the “internationalization of internet governance” in a statement.

“Xi Jinping and Putin mean that the internet should be subject to the control of sovereign states. This position is at odds with a free and open internet governed with the involvement of citizens and civil society,” David Bandurski, co-director of the China Media Project, a research program in partnership with the Journalism & Media Studies Center at the University of Hong Kong, said.

What’s probably more important, both countries seek to legitimize their domestic restraints on speech and the technologies that support them internationally.

Ambitions thwarted for now

Already in 2021, David Ignatius, columnist for The Washington Post, wrote about a new pact to work together for new rules to control cyberspace between Russia and China (now unavailable online).

According to Ignatius, the accord looked like a manifesto for joint internet control through capture of existing United Nations-sponsored organizations such as the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

Russia and China are also hoping to topple the existing internet governance structure, in which a nonprofit group called ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) – this is in essence a global multi-stakeholder community of engineers and technologists – coordinates the domain name system.

Russia has consistently blamed ICANN for serving the US agenda, even though the organization is entirely independent of any government.

However, if the plan of Moscow and Beijing were to take over the reins at the ITU and then deal with ICANN, the invasion of Ukraine has thwarted such ambitions.

In October 2022, Doreen Bogdan-Martin, an American, beat Rashid Ismailov, former Russian deputy telecommunications minister Rashid Ismailov with 139 votes to 25, and was elected the new secretary general of the ITU.

It was a sign that the large majority of voting members were supportive of the current model of internet governance where governments are not the final decision-makers about how to distribute online resources like IP addresses and domain names.

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