China, Russia prepare new push for state-controlled internet

Skyscraper of International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in Geneva, Switzerland. [Michael Derrer Fuchs/Shutterstock]

*This article was changed with an updated comment from Mehwish Ansari.

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.

The new proposal is expected to be presented in Geneva at the World Telecommunication Standardisation Assembly. Every four years, the WTSA decides the next ‘mandate’ of the standardisation body of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nation’s agency for ICT technologies.

The venue choice is essential, as so far, internet protocols have been decided in the context of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), an industry-driven body.

“In the ITU, bad technical decisions turn into politics, whereas in the IETF, the discussion would be about the merits of the technical proposal,” said Mallory Knodel, chief technology officer at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based non-profit organisation.

In September 2019, Chinese delegates from telecom giant Huawei pitched a new internet protocol (IP) at the ITU. Western countries voted down the resolution, an unusual case in the standard-setting sector, where decisions are typically taken via consensus.

“The fact that they haven’t submitted the text of the resolution yet shows that they’ve learned from the past. Everyone’s expecting it to be political,” Knodel added.

China’s idea of the internet

As the IP is the most fundamental level of the internet, the technical community is careful with making any changes to it. Changes to the IP have occurred in the past, although they are highly complex and take years to be completed.

The internet architecture is often described as a network of networks with decentralised governance that gives no single entity the power to shut it down. The current setting has come under criticism for being a deregulated territory dominated by big American corporations.

Beijing is pushing for a system of loosely interconnected networks, each with specific rules enforced via a massive VPN. That would create control points able to decrypt communications, enforce or shut down traffic.

“The proposed new IP is not compatible with [current] IP. That means new applications, new hardware, new software everywhere on the world,”  said Alain Durand, principal technologist at Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)

This incompatibility prompted concerns for a fragmentation of the internet because even if all countries were to follow China’s proposal, the uneven rollout would mean countries might be using different IPs for years. The last IP change occurred in the early 2000s, and complete rollout is still far from achieved.

As the two IP settings speak different computer languages, they would need translators that would provide a significant security vulnerability for the entire network as they create a ‘single point of failure’.

Huawei’s senior manager Momtchil Monov told EURACTIV he was not aware of any involvement in such a proposal, stressing that the company is in fact pushing for completing the deployment of the last IP update.

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Authoritarian support

China’s vision of the internet has received support from authoritarian regimes because it would give internet providers, which in many countries are state-owned, surveillance capacity on every device connected to the network.

In early February, the European Commission briefed EU diplomats about the ongoing discussions on opposing the motion in the context of the EU-US Trade and Technology Council but anticipated that several African countries were likely 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.

“We need to work to let people know about the benefits of the open internet,” said Hafedh Gharbi Yahmadi, an expert in internet governance. “It’s an ongoing work that we should pursue to protect the internet against any state-controlled approach.”

The EU-African summit from earlier this month tried to move African countries away from the Asian superpower. The Commission floated the idea that no EU investment would be made if a country was to follow China’s lead.

A few days earlier, EU digital chief Margrethe Vestager committed to an €820 million investment in Nigeria.

Dan Caprio, co-founder of The Providence Group, said that “anything related to the ITU is not popular in the US”.

At the ITU, governments have a decisive weight, making it the only platform where emerging economies manage to make their voice heard as Western companies have traditionally dominated the other standard-setting bodies.

Moreover, the process is much less transparent at the ITU than at IETF, where internal drafts are openly accessible, and there are lower entry barriers.

“The impression that I get when I speak to many US and EU stakeholders is that the ITU is an inconsequential body within the global technical standards landscape. It’s a mistake as that is certainly not a sentiment shared by a significant number of member states outside of North America and Europe,” said Mehwish Ansari, head of digital at ARTICLE 19, a British human rights organisation.

China’s new attempt comes when ITU is meant to elect a new secretary-general at the Plenipotentiary Conference in September 2022. The candidates are US national Doreen Bogdan-Martin and Russia’s Rashid Ismailov

On 4 February, China and Russia signed a joint statement stressing that “any attempts to limit their sovereign right to regulate national segments of the Internet and ensure their security are unacceptable, are interested in greater participation of the International Telecommunication Union in addressing these issues.”

“The role of United Nations is to be that forum where anything can be brought in, and everyone talks to each other and every country, regardless of the different ideologies,” said Tomas Lamanauskas, who is running for the position of deputy secretary-general.

Standard-setting politics

Governments do not necessarily need a new internet standard to assert control over the internet, as shown by the number of internet shutdowns, filtering, censorships, increasing network control, and foreclosures of international links.

China itself has already one of the world’s most sophisticated architecture to control the online environment, although still with some significant loopholes due to the global internet, which could be closed by making other countries follow its lead.

Moreover, Beijing has made setting international standards a critical foreign policy objective to shape technology in the digital age.

Earlier this month, the European Commission presented its plan to make Europe’s voice more heard in the international standard-setting process after one year and a half of delays.

“On standard-setting, the EU has been more reactive than proactive,” an EU diplomat told EURACTIV, noting that there has been little coordination to counter the Chinese proposal so far.

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[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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