This article was originally published by Katherine W. Keally on the National Association of Corporate Directors blog.
China’s legislature approved its Cybersecurity Law this past November, solidifying China’s regulatory regime for cyberspace and potentially disrupting foreign companies that use or provide telecommunications networks in China. The law takes effect June 1, 2017, and reflects China’s desire for “cyber-sovereignty” (regulating the Internet in China according to national laws, despite the global nature of the World Wide Web). As the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) faces pressure from slowing economic growth and foreign influence, the Cybersecurity Law is one in a series of laws the Chinese government has implemented recently to uphold state security.
Significant Provisions of the Law
Though the wording of the law is vague, it formalizes many current practices and aims to consolidate cybersecurity authority under the Cybersecurity Administration of China. While the government is expected to offer more clarification on the law through implementation rules, how the law is played out in practice will be the ultimate indicator of the law’s severity. These three aspects of the law have the greatest potential to affect multinational companies (MNCs) doing business in China, according to an NACD analysis:
1. Data localization: Article 37 of the law is one of the most contentious and requires that “critical information infrastructure” (CII) operators store personal information and other important data they gather or generate in mainland China to be stored in mainland China. CII operators must have government approval to transfer this data outside the mainland if it’s “truly necessary.” The definition of CII is a catch-all, including public communication and information services, power, traffic, water, finance, public service, electronic governance, in addition to any CII that would impact national security if data were compromised.
Impact: The broad applicability of the CII definition raises the concern that any company using a telecommunications network to operate or provide services in China would be required to store data in mainland China, possibly even affecting those that store data to clouds with servers located outside mainland China.
2. Support for Chinese security authorities: Article 28 requires “network operators” to provide technical support to security authorities for the purposes of upholding national security and conducting criminal investigations. Network operators are broadly defined as those that own or administer computer information networks or are network service providers, which may include anyone operating a business over the Internet or networks.
Impact: The loose definition of “technical support” creates the concern that MNCs will be required to grant Chinese authorities access to confidential information, compromising private information and intellectual property that may be shared with state-owned competitors. Although not stated in the final version of the law, there is also the possibility that companies may be required to provide decryption assistance and backdoor access to authorities upon request.
3. Certified network equipment and products: For network operators, Article 23 indicates that “critical network equipment” and “specialized network security products” must meet national standards and pass inspection before they can be sold or supplied in China. A catalogue providing more specification on these types of products will be released by the government administrations handling cybersecurity. Under Article 35, CII operators are also required to undergo a “national security review” when purchasing network equipment or services that may affect national security.
Impact: Chinese companies and government agencies have historically relied on computer hardware and software manufactured by foreign companies, although this is now shifting in favor of domestic IT products. Opportunities for hacking and espionage put China at risk of losing sensitive information to foreign governments or companies, and China has already started conducting reviews of the IT security products used by the central levels of government. This provision of the Cybersecurity Law demonstrates China’s resolve to mitigate this risk and may pose a significant barrier to foreign IT equipment manufacturers selling products in China.
How Directors Can Prepare
China’s Cybersecurity Law has been criticized by the foreign business community, and, depending on the law’s implementation, it may make doing business in China for MNCs not only more complex but also riskier. Tom Manning, a China specialist at the University of Chicago Law School and director of Dun & Bradstreet, CommScope, and Clear Media Limited, advises boards to consider the effect of the Cybersecurity Law in the greater context of China’s rise: “The Chinese economy is increasingly more self-sufficient. Domestic companies are growing stronger and are more capable, while multinational companies are finding it more difficult to compete.”
Manning suggests boards conduct an overall China risk assessment, with the Cybersecurity Law as the focal point. While some companies may determine the risk of doing business in China is too high, Manning says, others might decide they need to invest more in China to be profitable. Ultimately, creating alliances with domestic firms, who have a greater influence over the government’s implementation of the law, may be key. “Leading domestic companies have a stake in seeing a better definition of the law, and their interests aren’t unaligned with multinational companies,” Manning says. “Chinese Internet companies can explain to the government how the law will affect their business models and be more effective in doing so than Western companies.”
Although how the law will be enforced remains to be seen, boards can consider the following questions when evaluating the impact of China’s Cybersecurity Law:
- Are we storing information generated or gathered in mainland China on servers in mainland China? Do we need to create separate IT systems for China-specific data? Are we reliant on cross-border data transfers, and how would we approach this need with the Chinese government?
- What is our risk exposure stemming from the potential loss of intellectual property or encryption information as a result of this law? How would our business be affected should our Chinese competitors gain access to this information?
- For computer hardware or software manufactures, are we willing to share our source code with the Chinese government?
- For technology firms, how does the law alter the playing field for our company to compete in China against domestic firms?
- What additional investments do we need to make in order to comply with this law?
For an English version of China’s Cybersecurity Law, China Law Translate provides a free, unofficial translation. The Chinese version of the law is located on the website for China’s National People’s Congress.