Conflicts in Cyber Politics: Institutions, publics and internet companies in China and the EU

Kutsutilaisuus

Pe 23.11.2012 klo 10:00-11:30
The Finnish Institute of International Affairs
Kruunuvuorenkatu 4, 2nd Floor, Helsinki

The internet has created a new space in social life. The emergence of cyber-politics has simultaneously created new venues for social conflict and new dynamics of political power. China leads the world in microblog users, and conflicts over politically sensitive issues have exposed sharp contestations between the Chinese state, citizens and internet companies. To what extent can this framework be applied to the contrasting political environment of the EU? What are the main tensions that shape the political environment of the internet? Who are the main actors – governments, institutions and companies? Are there better ways of understanding the politics of the internet, and what this new space means for future of social and political dynamics?

This event is hosted in conjunction with the recent launch of a briefing paper entitled "Battle Lines in the Chinese Blogosphere: Keyword control as a tactic in managing mass incidents" by Mr Keegan Elmer. The event is being held to foster new ways of thinking about the cyber politics for future research, and as a stepping stone for future projects and possible collaboration with other researchers in the field.

Speakers:

Mr Jens Kremer, LL.M., Doctoral Researcher, the Faculty of Law, University of Helsinki

Dr Lauri Paltemaa, Adjunct Professor of Contemporary Chinese History, University of Turku

Comments: Mr Keegan Elmer, Research Assistant, the Finnish Institute of International Affairs

Chair: Dr Mika Aaltola, Programme Director, the Finnish Institute of International Affairs

 

Summary of the seminar

The event opened with an introduction by event chair and Global Security Program Director Mika Aaltola. Dr. Aaltola set the stage for the speakers, highlighting some of the key conflicts in the area of cyber politics, including the changing notions of politics in the modern age of the internet.

First to speak was Jens Kremer, Doctoral Researcher at the Faculty of Law in Helsinki. Coming from a legal background, Mr. Kremer began by examining the "rights” involved in cyber conflict, and some important distinctions between the applicability of certain rights in different categories of conflict. Rights in public-private conflicts, as in an individual or company vs. the state, are more clearly understood, while rights in private-private conflicts are much less clear, as in conflicts between individuals and companies. In the case of human rights, for example, are primarily understood as a conflict between states and individuals whereas human rights by definition do not apply to companies.

Mr. Kremer outlined many of the key points cyber conflict in Europe and their corresponding legal developments, in particular the issues of surveillance, which is the topic of his current research project. Mr. Kremer highlighted the growing importance of private-private conflict internet, especially problematic issues regarding surveillance. Companies not only collect vast amounts of data and conduct profiling of internet users, but any companies also produce, develop and export surveillance methods.

By way of transition, Mr. Kremer posed question from his research for thinking about China: how do public-private rights apply?

Professor Lauri Paltemaa then spoke of his study of the censorship of Chinese microblogs, where he explored the logic behind the censorship of blocked keywords on the popular Chinese microblogging platform Sina Weibo. He and his research team analyzed large numbers of blocked keywords collected over a year's time.

While some may incorrectly assume that the most common blocked material would include subversive content regarding overthrowing the regime or instituting western-style democracy, most blocked posts were related to Chinese Communist Party itself, including names of officials or the names of particular local governments. Professor Paltemaa proposed that the main intension of the censorship is to keep the party out of public debates on one of China's most vibrant, integrated and platforms for discussion.

Closing comments were given by Keegan Elmer, former research assistant at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs and current masters student in Democracy and Global Transformations at the University of Helsinki. Mr. Elmer attempted to bridge the study of cyber politics across China and Europe by examining particular issues and examining frameworks understanding cyber politics.

Some researchers of censorship emphasize the conflict between in state and individuals in terms of "control and resistance”. This paradigm, however, leaves out the role of private companies in censorship. Chinese internet companies are legally required to comply with state censorship efforts. Companies, while largely compliant, are in some cases resistant to implement state censorship prerogatives. While Sina Weibo cooperates with state censorship, it recently effectively resisted a campaign to require all its users to register under their true name and national identity number because of concerns that this would hurt business. Whether in China or in Europe, one cannot exclude possible conflicts between state demands and the for business to maintain profitability.

Furthermore, the study of online phenomena in cyber politics risks isolating them from important conflicts happening elsewhere, like protests on the streets, or the content of media. Mr. Elmer's recently published paper tracks the relationship between particular instances of citizen-state conflict with their corresponding state media control campaigns on Sina Weibo. Further research requires frameworks that include the dynamic relationships between citizens, states and companies as well as the relationship between cyber space and other venues of conflict.