China's Internet Freedom Double-Talk

Edward Snowden's experience reveals a lot about international cyber-issues.

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NSA leaker Edward Snowden's original choice of Hong Kong as a refuge has kept the antagonism between the U.S. and China over cyber-issues squarely in the spotlight. China has the one of the most repressive national Internet systems in the world, and the country is currently under global scrutiny for its cyber-operations abroad. However, recent revelations about U.S. surveillance give China's official media the strategic opportunity to push back, criticizing recent U.S. cyberactivity in an attempt to discredit the U.S. on issues of Internet governance. This tactic does little to distract from China's own cyber-practices, but it underscores how global norms about nations' cyber-conduct are ambiguous, nascent and controversial. 

As I've mentioned in another blog post, when it comes to nationwide Internet censorship China is arguably unmatched. It employs up to an estimated 100,000 people to manually censor online content, among other measures.

As for its cyberactivity in other countries, China operates with few scruples. A 2012 report prepared for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission suggests that the Chinese military has worked with Chinese companies and universities in the cybertheft of U.S. intellectual property. In addition, this year's report from computer security company Mandiant suggests that U.S. infrastructure is a target for Chinese military hacking.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Chinese hacking.]

And yet, in the context of Snowden's leaks, China's state-run newspapers go on the offensive on cyber-issues (as explained by the AP in this instance):

The Global Times, published by the ruling Communist Party, said in an editorial that Snowden "has performed a service" by uncovering "the sordid tale of how the U.S. government violates the rights of its citizens and conducts cyber spying throughout the entire world."

The Global Times comment, while provocative and ironic, nevertheless touches upon two crucial questions for U.S. domestic and international policy.

First, a pressing issue for many Americans (and citizens of some other countries) is how to accurately understand and establish reasonable oversight over sophisticated government surveillance tactics that were previously technologically unthinkable. This task, of course, is complicated by the reality that much of this technology is itself secret. Citizens and governments will be wrestling over this issue, and the debate over how to safeguard privacy while ensuring national security, for the foreseeable future.

[ See a collection of editorial cartoons on the NSA.]

Second, Snowden has highlighted the reality that the United States hacks into other countries' systems (revelations include alleged U.S. hacks into Hong Kong and mainland China), the widespread public knowledge of which may cause the United States to lose credibility on internet governance issues in the eyes of some, particularly in European countries, where recent revelations have provoked anger and strained diplomatic relations.

However, this information is unlikely to come as a surprise to many, especially China's leaders.

Indeed, the fact is that governments hack into other countries' cyber-infrastructure to gather intelligence. This is becoming an increasingly publicly acknowledged reality, and only partly because of Snowden. A May 23 Bloomberg Businessweek article (which pre-dates Snowden's leaks), for example, describes the role that cyber-operations play in U.S. intelligence gathering:

The U.S. government doesn't deny that it engages in cyber espionage. The U.S. position is that some kinds of hacking are more acceptable than others—and the kind the NSA does is in keeping with unofficial, unspoken rules going back to the Cold War about what secrets are OK for one country to steal from another.

[ Read the U.S. News debate: Should Americans Be Worried About the National Security Agency's Data Collection?]

Nevertheless, the article contends — as have others — that "The key role NSA hackers play in intelligence gathering makes it difficult for Washington to pressure other nations — China in particular — to stop hacking U.S. companies to mine their databanks for product details and trade secrets." While the United States makes a distinction between "target[ing] technology, trade, or financial secrets" and national security-type espionage (see, also, President Obama's recent comments on this difference in an interview with Charlie Rose), China does not view this distinction in the same way. 

Although China is not a country that offers much protection to its own dissidents, it is nevertheless using Snowden's case to construct a nationalistic rhetorical appeal over Internet governance. Now more than ever, U.S. diplomacy should prioritize explaining the U.S. stance on various cyber-issues and the future of the global Internet. When it comes to cyber-issues, many countries face the substantial challenge of establishing a reasonable and legally sound balance among national security, civil liberties and international norms. The rate of technological innovation only exacerbates this challenge. Continuing diplomatic efforts to continually build some consensus around the norms of cyber-engagement is a more important project than ever.

Julia Knight has contributed frequently to ForeignPolicyBlogs.com over the past year and will begin her first year at Yale Law School in September. You can follow her on Twitter @juliaaknight.