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(Reuters) — China's President Xi Jinping laid out his vision for the Internet on Wednesday, calling for a new status quo where Internet sovereignty rests in the hands of nations controlling the flow of information.
“Each country should join hands and together curb the abuse of information technology, oppose network surveillance and hacking, and fight against a cyberspace arms race,” Mr. Xi told China's second World Internet Conference.
“Cyberspace is similar to the real world in that both freedom and order are necessary,” Mr. Xi added, saying Internet users' rights to exchange views must be respected while maintaining order in accordance with the law.
Since Mr. Xi took China's helm in early 2013, he has presided over a centralization of domestic Internet governance and broader efforts to control, and often censor, the flow of information online, experts say.
Those efforts are aimed at maintaining stability, a lack of which the Communist Party sees as a direct threat to its rule.
China infamously operates a “Great Firewall”, the world's most sophisticated online censorship system which blocks — and, as of this year, also attacks — Internet services the government deems unsavory.
Its workers scour and scrub edgy and unwanted commentary from domestic web services.
Hacking has been a sore spot in U.S.-China relations. On Sept. 25, President Barack Obama said he and Mr. Xi had agreed that neither government would knowingly support cyber theft of corporate secrets to support domestic businesses.
The agreement stopped short of restricting spying to obtain government secrets, including those held by private contractors.
Critics of China's Internet governance have said foreign tech companies should not lend Beijing credibility by agreeing to comply with its policies.
“Tech companies, including Apple, Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and Microsoft, must be prepared to say 'no' to China's repressive Internet regime and put people and principles before profits,” Roseann Rife, East Asia research director at Amnesty International, said in a release on Tuesday.
Others, including press freedom group Reporters Without Borders and China censorship watchdog GreatFire.org, called for a boycott of China's World Internet Conference, which attracted executives from Chinese and U.S. tech giants.
From the United States, the roll call of companies at the conference in the eastern city of Wuzhen included Facebook Inc., Microsoft Corp., IBM Corp., LinkedIn Corp. and Netflix Inc.
China's Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., Tencent Holdings Ltd., Baidu Inc., JD.com Inc. and Xiaomi Inc. were also in attendance.
While Facebook and Twitter, among others, are blocked in China, that was not the case in Wuzhen where attendees enjoyed unfettered access to websites.
“This is the place with the best Internet connection in China,” Kaspersky Lab chief executive Eugene Kaspersky said during a conference forum.
“The worst is in Shanghai Pudong airport,” referring to the main international gateway to the country's commercial hub.
The nature of cyber attacks has evolved over the past 15 years as state-sponsored actors have entered a sphere formerly targeted by pranksters and criminals, according to a cyber security expert.