China rebrands proposal on internet governance, targeting developing countries

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is the agency of the United Nations specialised in communication technologies. [Jim Pruitt/Shutterstock]

The original story was updated to include the point of view of Huawei.

The Chinese government made another attempt in promoting its vision of the internet, in a repackaging intended to lure lagging regions.

Throughout the years, China has made several attempts at changing the current internet architecture, mostly in the context of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nation’s agency for ICT technologies.

Contrarily to other standardisation organisations that are dominated by private companies, in ITU governments play a leading role. Thus, Beijing has been using this forum to attract countries that might have similar interests in asserting stronger governmental control over the internet.

In September 2019, the delegate of Chinese telecom juggernaut Huawei presented a proposal for a new IP (Internet Protocol). In February, EURACTIV anticipated that more proposals were expected in the context of the World Telecommunication Standardisation Assembly.

China, Russia prepare new push for state-controlled internet

Officials and stakeholders on both sides of the Atlantic expect China to put forward a renewed proposal for a centralised version of internet governance this week, which will probably take the discussion into political rather than technological territory.

Changed approach

Beijing’s new proposal took the form of a modification of a resolution set to be adopted at the World Telecommunication Development Conference, the ITU’s conference dedicated to telecom development that takes place in Rwanda from 6 to 16 June.

Two weeks ago, the Chinese government circulated a modification of a resolution that in a footnote introduced the concept of IPv6+, presented as an enhanced version of the latest version of the internet protocol, known as IPv6.

At around the same time, IPv6+ was promoted by Huawei. For the telecom company, which was not involved in the resolution, the intention of the Chinese government was simply to fully define and agree on an acronym to avoid misunderstanding.

“IPv6+ can realize more open and active technology and service innovation, more efficient and flexible networking and service provision, more excellent performance and user experience,” the footnote reads.

According to the document, seen by EURACTIV, IPv6+ would have three crucial advantages. A more efficient allocation of information across the network; integration of other technologies that allow for an organisation of network resources; integration of innovative solutions.

New brand, same problems

“IPv6+ and new IP are the same song, different verse,” Mehwish Ansari, head of digital at ARTICLE 19, a human rights organisation defending freedom of expression, told EURACTIV. The two proposals have similar features that could have serious implications in terms of privacy and censorship, she added.

For Ansari, Huawei has changed its approach following strong pushbacks on its attempt to revise the internet architecture in 2019. Although still proposing most of the hallmarks of the initial new IP proposal, the initiative has been repackaged to make it seems like a natural extension of IPv6 instead of a wholly new architecture.

By contrast, for Huawei the two initiatives are completely unrelated, and it is not justified to speak about a rebranding since IPv6+ summarises technologies that are being developed by the whole industry, such as segment routing from Cisco and Nokia.

“New IP was a research programme that was looking at communication requirements in the year 2030 and beyond, considering a green field scenario. IPv6+ on the other hand is a more short-term focused extension of IPv6, defining a roadmap of features developed by the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force),” a Huawei spokesperson told EURACTIV.

Targeting lagging regions

According to ARTICLE 19’s Ansari, bringing this rebranding to the World Telecommunication Development Conference is a clever strategy, as it appeals to the concerns of regions in the Global South, which are still lagging far behind the deployment of IPv6.

As a result, countries might be persuaded by Huawei’s rebranded strategy and commit to more infrastructural projects like the ones China has been financing in the context of the Belt and Road initiative.

“The strategy is unlikely to work,” said Mallory Knodel, Chief Technology Officer at the Center for Democracy and Technology. The transition to IPv6 was initiated to increase the number of devices that can be connected to the internet, she explained, and while the number of connected devices in every region is booming, it is only in advanced countries with dense populations that are running out of space on IPv4 – the order protocol.

Seeking legitimacy

For Knodel, China’s proposal is misleading ‘marketing language’, since the IPv6+ is not a technical standard like IPv6, but a corporate product.

She stressed that the attempt to legitimise IPv6+ as a technical standard is shown by Huawei’s link IPv6+ to a working group of the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) on IPv6 enhanced innovation.

According to a source informed on the matter, the working group was established in October 2020 with a very limited mandate, and it is now an empty shell used to provide a history behind the proposal.

Conversely, Huawei points to the fact that the ETSI working group complements the work of IETF and involves over 90 companies.

Splinternet not the problem

Another point IPv6+ seems intended to address is the issue of compatibility, as the original new IP proposal would have not been compatible with the current architecture, prompting fears of internet fragmentation.

The concern with IPv6+ might be exactly the opposite, Knodel noted. If these new versions are made compatible with the older protocols, they might impose on all traffic additional information, including granular access data.

Net neutrality and fair share

According to CDT’s Knodel, the Chinese proposal would help the ‘fair share’ proposal of the European telecoms, or ‘sender pays’ as it is known in the United States, as it allows to provide additional information on internet traffic.

However, the European telecom operators reject such association, arguing that the traffic from major platforms is already known.

Moreover, the European Commission’s director for connectivity Rita Wezenbeek recently stated that the measures against contractual agreements do not go against the principle of net neutrality.

“The Internet should remain open, decentralized and governed through the multi-stakeholder model. European telcos are against the IPv6-enhanced proposal,” said Maarit Palovirta, senior director for regulatory affairs at the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association.

Western reaction

According to several sources, the Chinese proposal caught Western players flat-footed as it was sent relatively late before the conference, a move seen as ‘strategic’ to avoid a coordinated Western reaction.

One of the sources told EURACTIV that the European Commission briefed the European representatives ahead of the ITU conference.

[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]

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