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Russia and China get a big win on internet "sovereignty"

Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin
Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. Photo: Pavel Golovkin/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

The United Nations adopted an anti-cybercrime pact backed by China, North Korea and Russia Monday, against the wishes of U.S. and pro-civil liberty groups.

The big picture: For years, the United States has squared off with more repressive nations over global internet norms. The U.S. wants countries to offer citizens maximal access to the global internet, while Russia and others argue that countries should have "internet sovereignty" to block websites critical of governments and to punish online dissidents.

Why it matters: The UN resolution could give more legitimacy to the "internet sovereignty" crowd.

Driving the news: The resolution, which passed 88-58 with 34 abstentions, sets up a working group to examine global cybercrime prevention.

  • Critics say the pact provides a veneer of legitimacy for the sovereignty concept while allowing governments to shut off cross-border data access as a tool of oppression or to censor websites when used for "criminal purposes," without defining what those criminal purposes are.

All this comes as Russia prepares to test whether domestic networks could survive detaching the nation from the global internet in an apparent attempt to set up a China-style internet filtering system.

  • "Russia is hoping the resolution will mean that they will more easily be able to shut down the internet," said Kasey Stricklin, a Russia analyst for CNA consulting. "All of this is them hoping the UN will rubber-stamp those activities."

Losing U.S. leadership on internet could be a symptom of the United States' greater abdication of global leadership to countries like China and Russia, who are expanding their spheres of influence in Africa and the Middle East just as the U.S. is abandoning those regions.

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