How US-China digital trade war may squeeze human rights – part 2

by | Oct 26, 2021 | Free Speech, Open Blog, Privacy | 0 comments

[continued from] Let’s look at Korea. Since 2018, the incumbent party have for years tried to pass a data localization law which human rights advocates have fought against – so far successfully – because such law will make Korean users’ data and speech more vulnerable to government surveillance and censorship. However, fast forward to 2020, a sector of internet ecosystem succumbed to localization pressure in the form of Cloud Security Accreditation Program which requires all cloud service used by important public service agencies to submit and have their source codes certified by the Korea’s National Intelligence Service, the country’s counterpart to CIA.  Foreign companies are refusing to do so out of security concern (e.g., the Korean government creating a “back door”) and public service agencies’ clouds remain localized within Korea.

For avoidance of doubt, the Korean government does not condone China’s human rights practices and Korean people are typically horrified of them. Korea conducts its own protectionist/sovereignty mechanisms, but not in any way deliberately copying after the Chinese practice. Korea’s digital protectionism is of different magnitude from the Chinese, e.g., online payment rules requiring government-issued electronic certificates again not meeting the global standard (Open Net brought that rule down through campaign in 2015); the rule prohibiting high resolution map data from leaving the country, preventing foreign map providers from operating in Korea; censorship and blocking on websites selling otherwise legitimate goods and services in manners not fulfilling Korea’s parochial advertising rules.

In fighting against the tendency toward protectionism, it is evident that narratives against China are harming the discourse and hiding actual concerns. When Trump wanted to kick TikTok out of the US market and exclude Huawei from the supply chain, without identifying where the security concerns are, it strengthens the Korean government’s tendency to resort to digital protectionism.  On top of that, China is the number one trade partner of Korea. It does not mention human rights situations of China, nor does it complain of the Great Digital Wall. It is already difficult for the Korean government cannot have a principled stance against data localization.

Korea proffered different justifications for data localization bill: Government’s ability to censor and surveil content affecting Koreans; Government’s ability to tax foreign online services; Local telcos’ ability to charge paid peering fees ; Government’s ability to protect data privacy. China’s rhetoric for keeping Google and other American platforms off China territory do not differ much from Korea’s rhetoric for server localization bill. Effective legitimate censorship and legitimate surveillance. Taxation. Protecting privacy of Chinese people. On the last point, the US’s localization of Tiktok US converges.


Surely, Korea digital policy course does not directly cite or learn from the US attacks on China. For instance, LGU+ continues to use Huawei for its network equipment. Korea policy formation is, however, indirectly affected by nationalism against foreign companies. The following statements will be frequently heard: “We need data sovereignty”; “Foreign platforms are a sanctuary of illegal online contents and we need censorship and surveillance on them”; “Zoom dominance must be checked.”


The Trump US’ rhetoric against China had been ambivalent.  Trump’s US promotes free flow of information and therefore opposes server localization or data localization attempts but at the same time wants to kick Tiktok off the US territory for privacy concerns, disabling American people and only American people from accessing a service that people of all other countries can access.


The idea that bad things can be contained in or off one territory needs be based on scientific proof. Anything short of that will become nationalism, which will turn digital sovereignty (including data protection) into digital protectionism. Digital protectionism is essentially pro-authoritarian because it ends up requiring surveillance and censorship at the border.


Internet governance is not a subject suitable for competition between countries, e.g., US internet vs. Chinese internet. Aspiration is that internet should spelled with big “I” again like the old times. China becomes strong on internet is much better for the US. If Myanmar people can protest effectively against military coup using internet access albeit powered by cheap Huawei equipment, it is all good. Internet is language. Internet is not a commodity. The more people speak that language, the more liberated and equalized people will be — at least that is the possibility that all digital rights activists have subscribed. Biden said ‘will lead by example’. Nothing is more poignantly relevant to the China digital war discourse. You don’t want to fight China. The more you fight along the border, you will cause the other side to build higher the digital wall.

Another angle is that such wall go up within the borders as well: Both Democrats and Republicans support a tough stance against Beijing, but some GOP lawmakers’ stigmatizing rhetoric is putting a target on the backs of Asian Americans. At a recent hearing on anti-Asian violence, Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) repeatedly disparaged the Chinese Communist Party as the “Chi-Coms” and the “bad guys.”

Finally, there is more important question on whether economic (digital) rivalry and human rights concerns are connected to each other, i.e., “winning against China digitally or economically is actually improving human rights all over the world”, and whether systemic competition and ideological alignments are legitimate parameters to take into account in human rights protection. For instance, the plight of Myanmar has been clearly worsened by the conservative position that China has taken. I have no answer to this bigger question.


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