Platform Patrol: China, the United States, and the Global Battle for Data Security



Aynne Kokas | The Journal of Asian Studies

In Apple CEO Tim Cook’s keynote speech at the Chinese government’s 2017 World Internet Conference, he extolled the values of “Privacy. Security. Decency” (Apple Newsroom 2017). The last two terms, “security” and “decency,” have long been closely associated with Chinese government efforts to control the Internet. Indeed, in 2017 Apple agreed to turn over user data to Chinese government servers and start a Chinese provincial government-run data storage center. Yet in 2015, Apple refused to turn over the passcode for one user in the United States during the FBI investigation following the San Bernardino terrorist attacks. The company’s different policies in the United States and China relate directly back to Apple’s concern for market share and access.

China creates digital borders that push US technology firms to allow Chinese regulators access to private corporate and individual user data, even though Chinese firms would not make similar agreements with regulators in the United States, nor would US firms make those same concessions in the United States. China takes a broad view of its national sovereignty by looking not merely at physical oversight over airspace or terrestrial or marine borders, but also at the digital infrastructure and activity that constitute the country’s sphere of authority. The Chinese government defines its control over the country’s digital spaces (as well as outside access to those spaces) as “cybersovereignty.”

China articulated its policy of cybersovereignty early on:

“The Internet sovereignty of China should be respected and protected.… China maintains that all countries have equal rights in participating in the administration of the fundamental international resources of the Internet and a multilateral and transparent allocation system should be established on the basis of the current management mode, so as to allocate those international resources of the Internet, and a multilateral and transparent allocation system should be established on the basis of the current management mode, so as to allocate those resources in a rational way and to promote the balanced development of the global Internet industry” (Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China 2010).

In this statement, the Chinese government clearly identifies the importance of sovereignty in the control of digital resources as coming before participation in multi-stakeholder oversight through international organizations. The statement further articulates the importance of managing “the balanced development of the global Internet industry,” a rationale for protecting the development of China’s Internet industries from more developed competitors. China has continued to build on these principles through its laws and regulations. Most notably, in 2017, China implemented a new cybersecurity law that required any information deemed critical, broadly defined, to be stored on local, government-owned servers in order to protect its sovereignty (Quanguo Renmin Daibiao Dahui 2016). The centrality of sovereignty and “global balance” in China’s Internet governance doctrine facilitates the extension of Chinese cybersovereignty into US corporate governance. For the purposes of scholars of the media industries examining Sino-US trade, this suggests the need to move our research into a new domain: security

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