Cybersecurity is necessary to protect governments around the globe from cyber threats, but what happens if cybersecurity oversteps its bounds and threatens freedom and privacy?
Governments and other organizations around the world are bolstering their cybersecurity efforts, not only to protect their information assets and systems, but also to fight cyber terrorism.
However, cybersecurity can often be hindered or restricted by privacy concerns. Government initiatives to improve information assurance can cross the line into censorship and free speech issues, which could be the case, for example, with China’s new cybersecurity law.
China already has restrictive internet policies, known as the ‘Great Firewall’, and has passed a new law that further tightens its grip on information and how Chinese citizens access information.
China’s Cybersecurity Raises Censorship Fears
China is the world’s largest internet market, with more than 700 million users, but it’s also the most restricted. Eight of the world’s 25 most popular websites are blocked in China, including Facebook and Google, and experts fear that the country’s new cybersecurity law may make matters worse.
The legislation requires technology companies doing business in and outside China to store their data on Chinese servers, as well as enforce the country’s censorship policies on its platforms. China says the measures are needed to counter security threats such as hacking and terrorism.
However, critics say these measures not only restrict Chinese internet users, but also hinder international tech companies. According to the American Chamber of Commerce in China, nearly 80 percent of American and European companies believe censorship interferes with their business operations.
Sophie Richardson, China Director of the Human Rights Watch, states that: “If online speech and privacy are a bellwether of Beijing’s attitude toward peaceful criticism, everyone, including netizens in China and major international corporations, is now at risk. This law’s passage means there are no protections for users against serious charges.”
Despite this, China sees this legislation as a national security issue and hopes to develop international rules and standards for cybersecurity.
“There can’t be national security for one country while there is insecurity in another. (Countries) can’t seek their own so-called absolute security while sacrificing the security of another country,” states Liu Yaunshan, a leader in China’s Communist party and propaganda chief.
How Censorship and Cybersecurity Intersect
While many Western democracies balk at China’s censorship policies, other nations are emulating them, namely Russia.
Earlier this year, Russia hosted a forum with China’s top internet censors as it seeks more control of the Russian internet. Russia also tried to get tech companies to store user data on Russian servers in 2015, but companies didn’t comply.
Andrei Soldatov, co-author of The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia’s Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries told Voice of America (VOA): “I think this reflects their level of desperation inside of the Kremlin. They have these coming elections. And, it seems they need desperately to find some sort of solution to be absolutely sure that they can control the internet before the elections.”
Not all cybersecurity measures lead to censorship, but it is a tricky balance. According to democracy watchdog organization Freedom House, even though some new laws address legitimate security concerns, they have the potential to violate free speech and privacy rights.
The organization’s Freedom on the Net 2016 report had some sobering findings of information assurance and censorship:
- Internet freedom around the world declined for the sixth consecutive year
- Two-thirds (67 percent) of internet users live in countries where criticism of the government or military is subject to censorship
- 14 countries approved policies that could have a negative effect on free speech or privacy
- 34 countries had a decline in internet freedom since 2015
It’s not only authoritarian nations that are straying into censorship issues. Brazilian courts temporarily blocked WhatsApp because the company didn’t turn over user data for criminal investigations, while Germany passed a law requiring telecommunications providers to retain data for up to 10 weeks, despite the law’s violation of a European Union (EU) court ruling. Additionally, Germany and France requested the EU draft a law requiring tech companies to hand over encrypted data in terrorism cases.
How important is cybersecurity to national security? Check out Cybersecurity and Its Role in Government to find out more.
Cybersecurity is often a double-edged sword, and nations looking to protect their interests, fight terrorism and maintain privacy face a balancing act with cybersecurity policy.
Ron Deibert of the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy calls for a clear strategy in this arena. “Canada should be forging a leading position in global cyberspace governance and security. We certainly stand among those with the most to lose should cyberspace continue its spiral into censorship, securitization, militarization and crime.”
Cybersecurity is a global issue that impacts international business, diplomacy and communication. Though security is the top concern for nations, policies that stray into censorship can negatively affect relations in those areas.
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