China’s potential to shape the future of the global internet may be more significant than its alleged involvement in cyber commercial espionage.

To mark the first meeting of the NETmundial Initiative’s Coordination Council, held in São Paolo on 30 June 2015, China Military Online published an editorial observing that:

Global internet governance can no longer dispense with China. 2014 was the twentieth anniversary of China’s accession to the internet … and, by the end of 2014, China had 649 million users, representing one-fifth of global Netizens. This huge number means that no country in the world can afford to belittle the power of China’s internet any longer. Moreover, in line with China’s continuing rapid economic development, China’s internet industries have developed to the point of being comprehensive, diversified, in-depth and international. Measured by market value, four of the world’s top ten internet companies are Chinese … and the vertiginous speed with which China’s internet industries have developed now means that China has become a mainstay of the global internet industry.

The piece went on to state that China’s voice would have to be heard on issues of global internet governance, and that the country’s policies on the area, as articulated by President Xi Jinping, were attracting growing international support.

The NETmundial event primarily brought together representatives of government, civil society and academia from various parts of the world, aiming to encourage discussions on internet governance and to promote the cyber principles purportedly shared by its attendees. However, the initiative was controversial, having grown out of the Brazilian government’s reaction to revelations by rogue National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden about US electronic espionage around the globe, particularly the alleged monitoring of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. The Coordination Council included few representatives from the private sector.2 But, tellingly, China enthusiastically participated in the event, and the NETmundial Initiative enjoyed the support of both the World Economic Forum and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. The latter creates and controls what is in effect the address book for the internet, and until March 2016 operated under the aegis of the US Department of Commerce.

Nigel Inkster is Director of Future Conflict and Cyber Security at the IISS.

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