*This article has been modified with an updated commentary by Mehwish Ansari.
Officials and stakeholders on both sides of the Atlantic expect China to come up with an updated proposal this week for a centralized version of internet governance, likely to move the debate into political rather than technological territory.
The new proposal is expected to be presented at the World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly in Geneva. Every four years, WTSA sets the next “mandate” for the standards body of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the ICT technology agency of the United Nations.
The choice of location is important because, until now, Internet protocols have been decided in the context of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), an industry-driven body.
“At the ITU, bad technical decisions become policy, while at the IETF the debate will be about the merits of the technical proposal,” said Mallory Knodel, chief technology officer at the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology. – profit organization.
In September 2019, the Chinese representatives of the telecommunications giant Huawei presented a new internet protocol (IP) at the ITU. Western countries rejected the resolution, which is unusual in the standardization sector, where decisions are usually taken by consensus.
“The fact that they have not yet submitted the text of the resolution shows that they have learned from the past. Everyone expects it to be political,” Knodel added.
China’s idea of the internet
Since IP is the most fundamental layer of the Internet, the technical community is careful when making any changes to it. IP changes have happened in the past, although they are quite complex and take years to complete.
The architecture of the Internet is often described as a network of networks with decentralized governance that does not give any single entity the power to shut it down. The current environment has been criticized for being an unregulated area dominated by large American corporations.
Beijing strives for a system of loosely interconnected networks, each with its own rules enforced through a massive VPN. It can create checkpoints to decrypt communications, enforce or block traffic.
“The proposed new IP is not suitable [current] IP. This means new applications, new hardware, new software all over the world,” said Alain Durand, chief technologist at the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).
This inconsistency has raised concerns about internet fragmentation, as even if all countries followed China’s proposal, the uneven distribution would mean countries could use different IPs for years. The last IP change occurred in the early 2000s, and full use has yet to be achieved.
Since the two IP settings speak different computer languages, they would need translators, which would provide a significant security vulnerability for the entire network, creating a “single point of failure.”
Huawei’s general manager Momtchil Monov told EURACTIV that he was not aware of his involvement in such a proposal, stressing that the company is actually trying to complete the deployment of the latest IP update.
China’s vision for the internet has drawn support from authoritarian regimes because it would give state-owned internet providers in many countries the ability to control every device connected to the network.
In early February, the European Commission briefed EU diplomats on ongoing discussions to oppose the proposal in the context of the EU-US Trade and Technology Council, but expected several African countries to support China.
Since 2014, Beijing has been investing in Africa as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. Last December, the European Commission launched its rival strategy, the Global Gateway, but by now China already controls the ICT infrastructure of many African countries.
Internet governance expert Hafedh Gharbi Yahmadi said: “We must work to inform people about the benefits of an open Internet. “This is work we must continue to do to protect the Internet from any government-controlled approach.”
An EU-Africa summit earlier this month sought to distance African countries from the Asian superpower. The Commission suggested that if a country follows China’s lead, there will be no investment in the EU.
A few days ago, EU digital chief Margrethe Vestager committed to investing €820 million in Nigeria.
Dan Caprio, co-founder of The Providence Group, said, “Nothing related to the ITU is popular in the United States.”
Governments have a decisive weight in the ITU, making it the only platform where developing economies can make their voices heard, as Western companies have traditionally dominated other standard-setting bodies.
Moreover, the process at ITU is less transparent than at the IETF, where internal projects are openly accessible and have lower barriers to entry.
“The impression I get from talking to many US and EU stakeholders is that the ITU is an insignificant entity within the global technical standards landscape. This is wrong because it is certainly not a sentiment shared by a significant number of member states outside of North America and Europe,” said Mehwish Ansari, digital head of British human rights organization ARTICLE 19.
China’s new attempt comes as the ITU’s Plenipotentiary Conference in September 2022 is set to elect a new secretary-general. The candidates are US citizen Dorin Bogdan-Martin and Rashid Ismayilov from Russia.
On February 4, China and Russia signed a joint statement emphasizing that “attempts to restrict their sovereign rights to regulate and secure national segments of the Internet are unacceptable, and are interested in greater involvement of the International Telecommunication Union in resolving these issues.” “
“The role of the United Nations is to be a forum where everything can be involved and where everyone can talk to each other and to every country, regardless of different ideologies,” said Thomas Lamanauskas, who is running for deputy secretary-general. .
Governments don’t necessarily need a new internet standard to enforce internet control, as evidenced by the number of internet shutdowns, filtering, censorship, increased network surveillance, and the seizure of international communications.
China itself already has the world’s most advanced architecture for controlling the online environment, although there are still some significant gaps due to the global internet that could be closed by forcing other countries to follow its lead.
Moreover, Beijing has made setting international standards to shape technology in the digital age an important foreign policy goal.
Earlier this month, the European Commission unveiled a plan to make Europe’s voice heard more in the international standard-setting process after a year and a half delay.
To date, there has been little coordination to counter China’s proposal: “The EU has been more reactive than proactive in setting standards,” an EU diplomat told EURACTIV.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]