Could China take over the internet?

Epoch Times thinks so:

In November 2014, Li Yuxiao, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Cyberspace, stated, according to the state-run China Daily: “Now is the time for China to realize its responsibilities. If the United States is willing to give up its running of the internet sphere, the question comes as to who will take the baton and how it would be run.

“We have to first set our goal in cyberspace, and then think about the strategy to take, before moving on to refining our laws,” he said.

Li is now the head of a department designed to enforce the Chinese regime’s laws on technology companies. His comments are tied to a process announced by the United States in 2014 to relinquish control of the internet by ending the contract between the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

This process is now nearing its completion, with a deadline of Oct. 1.

US News has a good article spelling out some of the practical implications of the US government ceding control of the core technical functions of the internet:

Additionally, while it is true ICANN has not played a direct censorship role in other countries, there is the potential for future problems. Currently, a number of countries – including Russia and China – have the power to restrict access to specific websites within their territorial borders, but cannot do so globally. But what if these authoritarian regimes, via their positions on the GAC [Governmental Advisory Committee], gained a consensus and proposed to the ICANN board that no explicitly anti-government website domain name (for example, can be created because it could have domestic security implications? The special advisory power of the GAC states that even overruled proposals must “attempt to reach a mutually acceptable solution,” so a watered-down version of any censorship initiative could still be enacted after initial rejection by the board.

Similarly, what if the Chinese government had the power to pressure ICANN board members to edit the internet address book and remove a website that might be troublesome for its leadership? That sort of broad and egregious censorship cannot occur under U.S. stewardship today.

Second, although difficult to accomplish, after the transition it is possible for ICANN’s bylaws to be changed, which would allow anything from a change in location to a change in functioning – and the U.S. would no longer have any regulatory power to prevent it. Additionally, if ICANN moved to Switzerland, as has been proposed, it would no longer be a California corporation and might fall outside the jurisdiction of impartial American courts.

It is not at all clear to me how the global internet will be “better off” under the stewardship of a collection of hundreds of national governments, corporations, and advocacy groups, than under the US Department of Commerce. It’s even less clear how changing the status quo would serve American interests. The only real benefit seems to be positive PR; according to The Wall Street Journal in 2014:

So why is this happening? Couldn’t they just leave things the way they were? The main goal is to reassure other countries that the U.S. isn’t secretly controlling the structure of the Internet. To the extent American businesses have been damaged by the Edward Snowden disclosures, especially those offering cloud and other online services, this is a move aimed at repairing the relationship between the U.S. and other countries on Internet issues.

Make no mistake, this is a concession by the U.S. While the Commerce Department rarely intervened publicly in ICANN’s affairs, the implicit threat of its ability to do so will be gone.

“Reassuring other countries,” while desirable in itself, doesn’t strike me as a compelling enough reason for the US to irrevocably give up the keys to the global internet.

“Americans don’t go abroad”

Lecturer and researcher on the Chinese economy Antonio Graceffo comments on the popular belief that Americans are provincial yokels who rarely venture beyond their own borders:

“8 million Americans living abroad may tip a close election”

Where did this widely held myth come from that Americans don’t go abroad or know nothing of the outside world? The number of countries where Americans are the largest group of expats is staggering. US military bases are in about 40 countries, and they aren’t manned by robots or foreigners. About two-thirds of the millions of US military personnel will be deployed overseas during their enlistment. The US also has a diplomatic and governmental presence in the largest number of countries, and has the largest such presence in almost every country. And of course, US multinationals have operations in literally every country on the planet, with Americans working in them. The US is also the largest immigrant destination in the world, and has the highest percentage of immigrants, all of whom have been abroad. The percentage of US families who speak another language at home is probably one of the highest in the world. Also, may I add that bilingualism is higher in US than Canada, and that 38 million Americans speak Spanish. That 8 million Americans figure quoted above only represents Americans who register as living abroad. And Americans are extremely unlikely to register, so the real number could be several times that figure.

I would add that Americans comprise by far the largest group of non-Asian expats in China, at 12%, according to China’s 2010 national census, which is the most recent official data I can find.

Is China close to overtaking the US?

According to Anatoly Karlin, it’s getting there:

But as of this year, China is hurtling past yet another set of inflection points – the hi-tech component of its economy, roughly comparable to any of the major European Powers a mere decade ago, is now about to converge and then hurtle past that of the US by the end of the 2010s (even if in per capita terms it remains considerably behind, like South Korea 20 years ago).

This process can be proxied by three indicators: Number of scientific articles published, operational stock of industrial robots, and number of supercomputers.

It’s likely only a matter of time before China surpasses the US/Europe as a high-tech superpower. I don’t know when this will happen, as China still lags behind considerably:

China urgently needs to upgrade its industries by overcoming insufficient innovation to increase the contribution of technology to economic growth, Chinese business and government leaders concluded Sunday at a session on China’s New Business Context at the Summer Davos in North China’s Tianjin.

But it’s the trajectory that should interest us. In just a few decades, as Karlin points out, China became the world’s largest producer of coal and steel, then the world’s leading manufacturer, and is now rapidly closing the gap with the US in key measures of scientific and technological advancement. That’s a lot of progress in the space of a generation. We’re probably about to see a lot more.