Will China reinvent the Internet?

Hi folks, in an environment of heightened anxiety, even alarm, about Beijing’s intentions across a whole range of issues, it is worthwhile to take a step back.

Some in the West are portraying China as an uncompromising existential enemy. Media and elite narratives on the “China threat” has major implications for public opinion and policy. By solely focusing on Beijing’s perceived malicious intentions, we risk simplifying China’s challenge and self-fulfilling a prophecy.

As John Lee illustrates below with the case of the future Internet architecture, “[t]he role of Chinese actors should be measured against political and technical realities” and that “excessive focus on Chinese political motivations can obscure [the complexity involved].”

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John Lee, Senior Analyst Digital China, Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS).

In a world where interdependence is increasingly being ‘weaponized’, more attention is being paid to hidden levers of control embedded in transnational technological design and infrastructure. In an environment of growing suspicion towards China, the role of Chinese actors in this regard is increasingly scrutinised. But while the Chinese Party-state has political goals for technological development, these should not be the sole lens through which the actions of Chinese firms are perceived. The case of design for the future Internet illustrates how excessive focus on Chinese political motivations can obscure many other interests and factors involved.

Exporting digital authoritarianism?

Recent reporting by the Financial Times (FT) claims that China is on a “mission to reinvent the Internet”. It concerns a proposal made last September to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) for a ‘New IP’ to replace the current Internet Protocol (IP), which determines how data is transmitted across the Internet. Chinese interests allegedly plan to “push through the standardization of New IP” at the ITU conference this November.  

Citing inadequacy of the Internet’s current architecture to meet future requirements, the Huawei-led proposal advocates a ‘top-down design’ to replace the extant modular architecture. The FT paints a picture of closed-door efforts by China Inc. to “embed a system of centralised rule enforcement” through the state-dominated ITU, giving telecoms operators, and hence governments, control over access to the Internet at the expense of civil society. The result would be to “bake authoritarianism into the architecture underpinning the web”.

This claim may have intuitive appeal, but is a stretch from the documents obtained by the FT (which were in fact already publicly available online). The September proposal only suggests principles to guide research over the ITU’s next study period (2021-2024), reflecting arguments made in Huawei documents (also publicly available) going back at least two years. Another document given to the FT — which is not an ITU submission, but a paper for an April 2020 professional conference — provides some technical details, but nothing resembling the centralised “shut up command” allegedly described by Huawei at the September meeting. Collectively, these documents are a slim basis on which to finalise a lengthy ITU standard by November.

The most tangible concern raised about ‘New IP’  is that “internet service providers would have control and oversight of every device connected to the network”. This reflects similar concerns raised around IPv6, which was agreed a quarter-century ago as the Internet’s next-generation standard, concerning the increased potential for surveillance and control. Yet governments from Japan to the European Union are transitioning to IPv6, for the good reason that IP addresses available under the previous standard are running out. China began work on an IPv6-based ‘Next Generation Internet’ in 2003, showcasing applications at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Internet standards are always political

With IPv6, privacy concerns were partially addressed by removing physical identifiers from the standard’s specification. Likewise, the potential for ‘New IP’ to enable state authoritarianism seems far from ‘baked in’, and it should not be viewed with suspicion simply because it comes from Chinese actors. There is an arguable case for Huawei’s claim that “IP technology has not kept up with the needs of the industrial Internet.” By comparison, the European Telecommunications Standards Institute has just launched its own process to develop non-IP networking technology better suited to the Internet of Things.

Internet standardisation has always been political. Selection of IPv6 reflected a contest for control between a hierarchical process dominated by governments (the ISO) and an engineering community dominated by American ICT firms (the IETF). In the 1990s, telecoms operators used the ITU to promote a competing networking standard to IP, the successful technology being ultimately decided by market forces.  

Likewise, the debates around ‘New IP’ are less likely to reflect a novel Chinese master plan for exporting digital authoritarianism than the long-entrenched institutional politics of Internet design.  As one response put it, “evolution [of the Internet] should take place from within the organisations that invented the Internet” and “build upon existing structures”, whereas ‘New IP’ “represent[s] a departure from the Internet’s fundamental values”.  The issue with the proposal is less that it comes from Chinese actors than that it threatens orthodox principles of Internet design such as interconnectivity and bottom-up ‘permissionless innovation’, raising the prospect of a greater role for hierarchical, proprietary development and state-dominated institutions.   

China and technical standards

The FT’s reporting raises questions about how we view increasing involvement by Chinese actors in global technical standard-setting. These processes do reflect competing interests, but they do not “magically embed better or worse values” in technology: the politics that technology enables are expressed through social environments involving many actors, interests and relations of power. We need to examine this context before we can conclude that ‘New IP’ represents a Chinese conspiracy to enact authoritarianism worldwide through the Internet.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has limited incentives to redesign the global Internet from the bottom up simply to enable political repression. Cyberspace inside China has already been largely secured against domestic challenges, through a combination of regulatory and technical measures that leave no place to hide. At the international level, Chinese actors have already made attempts at changing the global domain name system to allow a nationally configured Chinese Internet, enhancing authorities’ control over which websites can be accessed within China’s borders.

Yet China’s networks remain connected and compatible with the global Internet. Xi Jinping himself has made clear that China’s development requires a balance to be struck in cyberspace between control and openness. Given the massive benefits China reaps from the global interoperability of networks that characterises the current Internet, the CCP has a strong interest in not fragmenting it, as critics have claimed that ‘New IP’ threatens to do.

‘Reinventing the Internet’ would require influencing the whole array of institutions and interests that shape this global technological artifact. While this proposal by Chinese actors might move the distribution of Internet design and governance in new directions, this implies neither a monopoly of Chinese interests, nor the absence of technical justifications that have nothing to do with the CCP’s ideology. ‘New IP’ has after all emerged in an environment where increasingly, “traditional notions of Internet freedom are disconnected from actual technical, political and market conditions”. 

What are China’s interests here

Seen in this context, the goals behind ‘New IP’ are more likely to be what the documents say they are: enabling new economy applications that China, and the CCP, has hitched its future to.  In a world where the Internet is ‘in’ everything, leadership of Internet design is a path for Chinese firms to capture first-mover commercial advantages. Unsurprisingly, criticism of ‘New IP’ by the IETF and American business lobbies has focused on how it would promote monolithic (rather than heterogeneous) development of the Internet, and thereby “certain technical leadership ambitions.”

Beijing does in fact have well-publicised political goals for transforming global Internet governance, in line with a vision of national ‘Internet sovereignty’ that is both state-centric and adaptable to evolving conditions. But this doesn’t mean that every technical proposal from Chinese firms is a Trojan horse for authoritarianism. The role of Chinese actors should be measured against political and technical realities, not against a fetishized ‘free and open Internet’ ideal that many would argue has already failed.