China’s tech ambitions threaten to fundamentally change how the internet functions

The internet has been a success largely because users across the globe can connect to each other without barriers. China wants to move away from this model, and its top tech firms such as Huawei, Tencent, and China Telecom are working hard to ensure that industry standards for next-generation networks translate into positive outcomes for China. They are wielding their influence at international standards development organizations, such as the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). These organizations are guiding next-generation network buildout, aiming to ensure the success of native technologies that reflect Chinese policies and politics, and to create a newly centralized, top-down model of internet governance. To create this model, China seeks to first destabilize the western-centric, centralized internet governance system, then pivot back to a centralized model that reflects its own interests.

U.S. and Chinese flags are seen before Defense Secretary James Mattis welcomes Chinese Minister of National Defense Gen. Wei Fenghe to the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
via Reuters

A forthcoming paper in the Chatham House Cyber Journal titled “Standardising the Splinternet: How China’s technical standards could fragment the Internet” describes how this might occur. The internet has thrived for decades, due in part to the simplicity of its structure. The engineers who collaborated to create the internet’s connection paths aimed to build networks that could interact agnostic of individual hardware and software choices. US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency researchers worked on what became the most popular communications protocols: the Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol (TCP/IP).

China
wants to move away from the global internet’s ubiquitous architecture, which is
based on TCP/IP, to a centralized model using government-approved standards.

But China is leveraging policy and technology in an attempt to create a new protocol that is friendlier to Beijing’s goals and Chinese Communist Party ideals. China’s first National Cybersecurity Strategy described the need for the internet to be more structured to enable cyberspace as a “new territory for sovereignty.” Under President Xi Jinping, links between national security, cybersecurity, and technology have been reinforced and are a top policy priority.

Technology standards are important because once they are chosen, companies and governments are locked into a specific path for their infrastructure and technology investments for years to come. Choosing the wrong path can mean investing in infrastructure and devices that quickly become obsolete. This is one way in which telecommunications systems and the internet infrastructure have historically differed.

The internet runs on the best current efforts of the engineers — not hardened standards — enabling the technology it runs on to be constantly improved. Moving to a top-down control model where physical resources are centrally managed would negatively affect this quality and would fundamentally alter how both content and approved users of the technology can be controlled.

The ITU’s telecom sector (ITU-T) has a study group that focuses on cloud computing and big data infrastructure security called Study Group 17. In this study group, five of the 12 working draft topics are managed by editors from China Telecom for the “research and development” portion of the text. China’s ultimate objective is a more network-centric internet that can be controlled in a top-down fashion, potentially threatening the human rights and security of individual users.

Beijing
and its allies see the transition to next-generation networks, often referred
to as 5G, as a good opportunity to make this fundamental change. The Chinese
government wants to control 5G and be a technological superpower, and it
recognizes that the standards bodies can be a vector for gaining a strategic
and commercial advantage as the world invests in and moves to 5G.

Network layers can facilitate centralized control when restructured. Many of the representatives from network operators and infrastructure providers participating in the design and promotion of 5G strategic initiatives in the standards bodies are from Chinese companies. This lets China Unicom, China Telecom, and China Mobile — all state-owned businesses — promote policies and regulations that aim to establish a centralized management model for services, access controls, and applications at a point of connection to the network. This would replace the lightweight, open, and interoperable technical standards agreed to by engineers, academics, and industry members for decades in collaborative bodies such as the Internet Engineering Task Force and policies discussed at the Internet Governance Forum.

This is why the multi-stakeholder engagements that allow civil society to play a key role alongside industry, academia, and governments should be involved when national security and human rights could be affected. China’s rise in technical expertise will continue to fuel tension in these discussions. While China’s capabilities are often on par with or best in class for new technologies, it is abusing the realm of standards policy–setting in an attempt to take over governance of the internet. If this happens, the internet as we know it will quickly be diminished.

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