China and Russia have launched a global campaign to regulate content on the Internet that, if successful, would slowly destroy cyberspace as a means of self-expression, freedom and unregulated speech. While they are still far from achieving their goals, Moscow and Beijing sense an opportunity in the outraged reaction to former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks to change the global conversation and continue nudging stakeholders in the direction of censorship as the universal default norm.
The Russian and Chinese governments already heavily regulate the Internet at home, but they are increasingly seeking to use international forums, organizations and rules to apply their domestic practices of censoring content globally. The structure of the Internet, which is largely indifferent to political borders, makes it challenging for one country to enforce content controls domestically. What cannot be found on a domestic Internet site is likely to be available on a foreign site; the Internet does not normally discriminate. Thus, domestic censorship would be much improved by agreements with foreign governments to similarly constrain content on sites originating in their territories. In short, to practice effective domestic censorship, one really needs foreign assistance.
At the recent NETMundial conference in Brazil, Russia proposed a new international authority with oversight over the domain naming system that lies at the heart of the Internet and suggested using international agreements to lay out the rights and responsibilities of states to regulate the Internet. In short, Moscow wanted to introduce political imperatives into ostensibly technical decision-making institutions.