SF Gate: "Zuckerberg’s pandering to China threatens Web’s values"

December 19, 2014


President Obama acknowledged Dec. 3 that the Chinese exercise of cybertheft is “indisputable.” While he encouraged American CEOs to speak out about China’s behavior, others, such as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, could not be more eager to pander to senior Chinese officials in order to nudge his way into a lucrative new market. Facebook is blocked in China. So when China’s top Internet regulator, Lu Wei, proclaimed in October that he never said Facebook could or could not enter China, Zuckerberg renewed his charm offensive.

[by Amy Chang | December 12, 2014 | sfgate.com]

The Facebook CEO was photographed showing a copy of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s book of speeches to Lu during his visit to Silicon Valley earlier this month, saying he bought the book because he wants his employees to “understand socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

Why was Zuckerberg’s gesture toward Lu especially concerning? Because China is actively promoting a counter-narrative to the traditional Western notion of an open, free, networked society. China, and in particular Lu, have been proposing the concept of sovereignty in cyberspace, implying China’s ability to control its own Internet, censor information that may threaten the regime, and administer Web traffic within its own borders. China has employed this language in state-sponsored media, in government white papers, in U.N. meetings, and in literature distributed at Internet governance conferences.

The message conveyed in these efforts is the antithesis of what Silicon Valley stands for. In the past several years, companies have stood up for its principles of free access to information and freedom from censorship and monitoring. In early 2010, Google said it would stop censoring Internet search results in China and subsequently ceased search services in the country.

This tension resonates diplomatically, as well, and the bilateral U.S.-China cyberrelationship has continued to stagnate. China suspended the U.S.-China cyber working group in May after the Department of Justice indicted five People’s Liberation Army officers for conducting cybereconomic espionage against U.S. firms. No substantial progress on cybersecurity between the two governments has been noted since then, though the U.S. government has repeatedly tried to restart dialogue.

How should companies like Facebook manage competing incentives to expand business overseas and mixed messaging to speak out against China? They could start by gaining a better understanding of U.S. government efforts to promote a free and open Internet worldwide, China’s cybersecurity strategy, and China’s political, economic and military motivations in cyberspace. A deeper perspective could improve private companies’ approach to engagement with China, and also support U.S. policy efforts in cybernegotiations.

The goal of China’s cyberstrategy is multifaceted. First and foremost, it is to protect the longevity of Chinese Communist Party rule. That is, the Chinese value the preservation of governing power of the party over other considerations such as freedom of expression, human rights and personal privacy. Supporting objectives include sustaining Chinese economic growth, modernizing its military, ensuring domestic political stability, and protecting territorial integrity (including resolution to the Taiwan issue, maintaining firm control over Xinjiang (Uighur Autonomous Region) and Tibet.

Some of these objectives manifest as the pilfering of intellectual property from U.S. companies of strategic interest for domestic economic or military gain, or in the censorship of information and discourse in China. In Washington, Lu faced criticism for these activities. At Facebook, these issues were glossed over for business interests.

While Facebook’s mission is to make the world more open and connected, the company should have had the foresight to understand how Lu’s visit to Silicon Valley — and Zuckerberg’s gesture in particular — would provide fodder for promoting China’s model of Internet governance.

With more than 600 million Internet users, China is an attractive overseas market. But before we open our arms and embrace an Internet with Chinese characteristics, we should also consider the implications of expanding U.S. businesses at the expense of what companies and the United States stand for.

Amy Chang is a research associate at the Center for a New American Security and the author of a report on China’s cyberstrategy.

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