AI Governance Panel: Digital Authoritarians and Cyber Policy

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China’s increased technological capacity and advocacy raise concerns about the rise of “digital authoritarians,” revealing the lack of globally-recognized cyber policy.

“A new race for global dominance has started, and, this time, it is in technology.” Recent revelations of Chinese firms’ IP thefts and the Chinese states’ zealous drive for R&D in fields like AI have sparked debates on technology’s impact in governance. Underlying these discussions are fundamental questions of access, usage and regulation that already impact businesses, policymakers, and citizens worldwide. How is the Chinese state leveraging technology to govern its people? What are the international rules governing cyber behavior? To unpack these themes, FACES in February hosted a panel with cyber policy expert Christopher Painter and UC Berkeley research scientist XIAO Qiang. The panel welcomed 50 attendees from the Stanford student community. Following are the key takeaways from the panel:

Beijing has increased efforts to consolidate its vision of cyber governance at home—and to promote that vision abroad. Domestically, next-generation IT such as AI and smart cities have increased the state capabilities in surveillance and crime punishment, allowing “a small number of people [to control] a larger population.” Through the Belt and Road Initiative, he asserts technologies once deemed “liberating” have given rise to a wave of “digital authoritarian states.” With respect to the Internet, China is also becoming more proactive in the international policy realm. China is engaging in cyber dialogues and capacity building for Internet control with developing countries. the drive to tighten cyberspace reflects goals of economic growth and social stability. It also reflects heightened concerns for legitimacy among Chinese policymakers since Russia’s interference in the 2016 US presidential election. 

One must view cyber governance within the international order.  “Cyber policy” concerns not only international security, but also international norms. Former US president Obama made multiple efforts to emphasize the need for a shared cyber policy framework with president Xi. At stake are rules of conflict—not attacking non-combatants, but also rights—the freedom of the Internet. In this vein, he argues that China’s export controls threaten the open values and multilateral stakeholder nature of the Internet. 

Discussions surrounding cyber governance are constantly evolving with differences in each side’s understanding. In the US-China context, the same rhetoric may have different meanings. For example, Chinese policymakers emphasize information control when discussing cybersecurity. In addition, there are divisions between key Chinese agencies in charge of cyber policymaking—the People’s Liberation Army, Ministry of Science and Technology and the Cyberspace Administration of China. Regardless, one should expect more coordination in the future. The 2015 Cyber Agreement presents promising steps for a high-level joint dialogue mechanism between the United States and China on fighting cybercrime, economic IP theft and related issues. Yet, discussions have halted, reflecting how international frameworks are also subject to the changing climates of state-to-state relations. 

The audience Q & A provided a chance for further reflection and exploration. Attendees expressed concerns of how technology can jeopardize civil liberties even in democratic contexts. While fundamental differences might justify numerous cyber practices, both panelists underscored the need to proceed from an understanding of facts as a way forward. Regarding US-China technological tensions, Painter attributes the cause not to the US government, but increased public concerns, a reminder of the importance of separating issues into time periods. As Beijing realizes the vulnerability that comes with more technological capacity, however, China may become more a responsible stakeholder in international cyber governance.

Author: Catherine Baron ‘21, FACES President (catherinebaron@stanford.edu)