By Colum Lynch

NEW YORK - China is seeking to tighten its digital fist at the U.N., pushing for more state control over the internet and protect national security and sovereignty in the freewheeling digital world, according to U.N. documents to which Devex Senior Global Reporter Colum Lynch got access.

At the same time, it’s straining to secure access to advanced Western technology, and chipping away at human rights protections for civil society, writes Colum in an exclusive report.

This behind-closed-doors negotiation comes as the U.N. hammers out a declaration on what’s been dubbed the Global Digital Compact, which aims to use artificial intelligence to eliminate poverty and inequality, among other global ills, and to lay out the rules for digital communications.

But the deliberations highlight the rift between China, along with some of its authoritarian allies, and the U.S. and many other Western countries. China wants to rein in and control social media, while the U.S. and others want to protect tech company rights and keep the digital world more open.

Of course, both sides claim this is all part of efforts to accelerate achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

The two sides have framed their respective campaigns as efforts to accelerate the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, a series of U.N. targets to end poverty and inequality and protect the environment by 2030.

China has suggested some changes, framed around the need to prevent online crimes and stop the spread of information that could harm national security and promote terrorism, separatism, and extremism. But this kind of talk has been used before to justify some pretty serious human rights crackdowns on dissidents and ethnic minorities such as Uyghurs. The Chinese mission to the U.N. didn’t have anything to say about these proposals.

“AI has become the latest flashpoint for geopolitical control of technology,” Anna Bacciarelli, associate technology director at Human Rights Watch, tells Colum. “As with all technology governance, it’s essential that international human rights law, including free expression and privacy, be at the center of all U.N. discussions about the future of the digital space.”

The Chinese amendments, like those of numerous other countries, must go through a tedious process of intergovernmental negotiations that require consensus and may not ultimately survive.