Virtually all westerners, and most western companies, embrace the belief that information should be free. This means that it should freely cross national borders and be accessible by anyone with a browser. In short, as long as it sits on a web server, it should be accessible from anywhere.
Some individuals, such as Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, and Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, have gone so far as to embrace the concept that people should have almost no secrets at all, and that if you do have secrets, you are either backward, or have something bad to hide. Basically, they put forward the view that if you want to hide something, you are old, out-of-date and out-of-fashion, and that you SHOULD embrace openness as the way of the future. Mark Zuckerberg has gone so far as to say that if he had the chance to re-architect Facebook all over again, he would make it completely open, with no privacy controls.
Many in the west, especially libertarians, have embraced this idea without even debating the merits of this argument. People in the IT sector especially are sympathetic to this POV, so much so that it has become a white god. The white god syndrome is the widespread belief is that those in the west have always known what is best for the rest of the world, and that it upholds the precious values of personal liberty and individualism. After all, hasn’t the west been the leader in the struggle for human liberty and progress, fighting two world wars and numerous small wars so that others could be free? Many in the west adhere to this point of view, forgetting to question why accountability in the west is often applied selectively, in spite of all the claims made by its proponents.
If you accept this historical narrative, then anyone, or any government, which dares to object are either ignorant or evil.
Throughout the argument for free flow of information, there is no room left for defining the role of what a government does. There is only 1) information and 2) the rights of the individual to access that information anytime and anywhere.
Because the argument is framed this way, the Chinese government’s claims for Internet sovereignty have been met with derision and even contempt by the western press. The Chinese government’s claim is simple enough: IT companies in China must adhere to PRC laws. Looking at it from the surface, there is nothing revolutionary or different about the PRC claim; other governments, including those in the west, require IT companies to follow the laws of the country they do business in. If there is a difference in China, it has to do with due process, and what the government needs to do in order to obtain data from the IT companies. This is where things get blurry.
The infrastructure for the Internet was built in a way which did not clearly follow national borders. A US IT company may have web servers in Iceland, which now has the most stringent laws protecting data privacy. The data may or may not sit on the company’s own web servers; it could just as easily sit in the cloud, on servers provided by Amazon, Microsoft, Google or Apple, adding yet another layer of abstraction. Just thinking about the legal aspect of this is likely to throw lawyers into a tizzy of billable hours.
In contrast to this, the Chinese government has been very protective of Chinese consumer data. In China, consumer market research is a restricted industry, meaning that non-Chinese market research companies are not allowed to enter the field. In order to enter the industry, most western market research firms need to form joint ventures or partner with multiple Chinese market research firms. While the western market research firms do the analysis, the data is usually kept in the hands of the Chinese market research firms. This way, the data about Chinese consumers is always kept in the hands of the Chinese market research firms, and never leaves China’s borders.
The only exception to this rule comes with regard to personnel files in western multinational corporations. Most US and European firms have centralized HR departments at company headquarters; these include detailed personnel files for all staff and management, regardless of country and location.
Throughout this discussion, it has become very clear that the Chinese government does not adhere to the currently dominant western notion that information should flow freely across borders. This position has been made crystal clear in the showdown between Google and the Chinese government over censorship. I see the Internet sovereignty assertion as the first step in a systematic pushback against the free flow of information argument.
How could the Chinese government push back further? The simplest and most logical argument would be to claim that all personnel and data files on PRC citizens must not leave the PRC’s borders, and giving the security services the right to go to western MNCs’ HR departments to perform data audits to make sure that they are in compliance. Such a move would throw their HR departments into chaos, as it would mean that headquarters would no longer have the personnel files of PRC employees.
If the PRC government were to make this claim, it would effectively claim that it has control over all data about its citizens.
To sum up:
- There should be a healthy debate about the free flow of information across borders. For too long, this is a position which has been supported without question in the west, and those who have challenged it have been routinely tarred and feathered by the press. This lack of an open debate about this aspect of the white god is not a good thing.
- The PRC government should clearly state its position on data, and express how far it intends to go. If the government stakes a claim to all PRC citizen’s personnel data, will they extend that to their medical information and later, genetic data, too? Will the individual have any control or recourse over their own data, or will the government always be the final arbiter and decision-maker? The Chinese government should makes its position clear, without resorting to slogans and nationalism.
This would be best for everyone, especially the Chinese people.