China has consistently been ranked by digital advocates as the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom. The country, however, isn’t just tightening online controls at home but is becoming more brazen in exporting some of those techniques abroad including in Africa, says a new report from the US-based think tank Freedom House.
Using a mix of official training, providing technological infrastructure to authoritarian regimes, and insisting that international companies accept its content regulations even outside of China, Beijing is becoming adept at controlling information both inside and outside its borders. Together, these trends present “an existential threat to the future of the open internet and prospects for greater democracy around the globe,” the Washington DC-based non-profit said.
The study assessed developments related to internet freedom that took place between June 2017 and May 2018 in 65 countries across the world.
The issue of internet freedom and its link to China has gained urgency as the nation’s tech behemoths expand globally to disrupt industries as varied as communications, e-commerce, facial recognition technology, and artificial intelligence. As part of its Belt & Road infrastructure project, the Asian giant is also developing a “digital Silk Road” that will establish fiber optic networks across the developing world. But given the close links between Chinese tech companies and the government, experts have warned that these digital systems could be used for Beijing’s intelligence operations and electronic surveillance.
Over the past year, China hosted sessions on its sprawling system of censorship and surveillance for media officials from countries such as Morocco, Egypt, and Libya. Last November, it also held a two-week seminar on “Cyberspace Management for Officials of Countries along the Belt and Road Initiative.” Freedom House says “it is not always clear what transpires during such seminars,” but that the meetings have usually been followed by the introduction of cybersecurity laws that closely resemble China’s own law including in Uganda and Tanzania.
Chinese companies are also playing a prominent role in their push to install internet and mobile networking equipment across Africa. The Shenzhen-based Transsion Holdings, for instance, is now Africa’s largest phone maker. Startups like CloudWalk is undertaking a mass facial recognition program in Zimbabwe. Huawei is advising Kenya on its information and communication technology master plan.
But while building these infrastructures is crucial for the continent, there’s also fear that China could use “backdoor mechanisms” to access massive amounts of personal, government and financial data. Earlier this year, reports showed that Beijing bugged the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa—which it helped build—and transferred data for more than five years.
Beijing is taking these steps even as African governments increasingly look at the internet as a threat, using a motley of targeted shutdowns, surveillance, and arbitrary legislation to silence digital users. Citing fake news, increasing online “gossip,” and plans to boost domestic revenues, governments have also begun taxing internet bundles—introducing a costly impact not just on democracy and social cohesion, but on economic growth, innovation, and net neutrality.