Here’s the latest bit of nonsense from the US – China digital Cold War front. A Financial Times article is getting a lot of attention because it claims that we are in imminent danger of the Chinese using the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to impose an entirely “new Internet” standard upon the world. We are told that the Chinese are about to create
“an alternative form of the internet, to replace the technological architecture that has underpinned the web for half a century.”
It goes on to state:
“Huawei and other co-developers are planning the push through the standardization of new IP at a major telecommunication conference in India in November.”
These claims are distorted and inaccurate. But it gets worse. The article goes to great lengths to bind Chinese-promoted technical standards to an export of Chinese authoritarianism.
Let’s look at reality.
A White Paper, not a new standard
The proposed standard is not a standard at all, it’s a forward-looking White Paper. It is called “Network 2030 – A Blueprint of Technologies, Applications and Market Drivers towards the Year 2030 and Beyond.” The title alone ought to tell you that the timeline is long and uncertain.
Far from offering a well-specified replacement for the Internet Protocols, the slide show projects new applications like holographic communications and a “tactile internet” and makes the point (which anyone with any technical knowledge is aware of) that the latency and packet loss attendant upon the use of current IP standards may not be optimal for anticipated future uses. Its bottom line proposal is to “set up a new research group” to see how data communication standards can prepare for such new applications. And far from being “news,” this vision was first presented by Huawei’s Richard Li in July of 2018, more than 18 months ago.
Apparently, the FT reporters (and their sources) don’t know the difference between a new standards document and a research group doing long term projections of where communications technology will lead us in the future. They don’t know the difference between a global standards adoption and a vendor’s boastful positioning. More significantly, the FT reporters (and their sources) don’t understand that any scenario in which new data standards could actually replace TCP/IP versions 4 and 6 will take decades to play out. A new standard would have to be carefully defined, agreed on, implemented and then adopted by a critical mass of the world’s networks and systems if it were to become dominant. As we have pointed out in other research, the global compatibility created by universal use of TCP/IP and related IETF standards such as DNS and a common global root are practically impossible to abandon without unacceptable sacrifices in compatibility. A new IETF standard (IP version 6) created 20 years ago has still not replaced the ancient IP version 4, which was standardized in 1981.
Where did this “news” come from? The reporters list as their key source a UK “delegate to the ITU” who asked not to be named. They then mention a commercial consultancy company called “Oxford Information Labs” (let’s call it OIL) that is doing a “paper for NATO” about this. So the oily source of this mini panic is exposed as a PR play by Emily Taylor and her consultancy group, which “leaked’ a two year old, public document to some gullible reporters and put a digital Cold War spin on it to promote a report they’ve developed.
Exporting Chinese authoritarianism?
The most poorly documented and objectionable part of this article, however, is its equation of a Chinese-promoted technical standard with an export of Chinese authoritarianism. This is kind of stuff we would expect to see from the Trump administration’s State Department, not a respected newspaper. We think it is imperative that the Internet community resist the tacit politicization of standards development that occurs with these kinds of claims.
Since there are no real technical specifications here, it is impossible to know whether the “New IP” direction proposed by Huawei would make global data communications more or less authoritarian. We do know, however, that nation-states are having little trouble censoring platforms, engaging in mass surveillance, implementing shut-downs, exporting their control, and engaging in information operation campaigns against each other under the current standards ecosystem. The idea that standards are going to magically embed better or worse values in a complex social infrastructure is a fiction that needs to be die a well-deserved death, soon, but that’s another story.
The article claims (with no documentation) that a Huawei speaker said that the new standard would have a centralized point where a specific IP address could be “shut up.” If that really happened, it shows how ludicrous this hysteria is. Such an arrangement is laughably infeasible. Just ask yourself: how would the world’s governments and businesses agree in an international standard on who would be holding this central shut up button? On the other hand, nothing stops the administrators of the existing 60,000 network operators from blocking a specific IP addresses or domains now.
What to do about China’s rise?
Let’s confront the elephant in the room, which is the rise of China as one of the world’s largest economies with its own globally competitive technology (Huawei) and information services firms (TikTok). We may not like China’s political system, but China’s rise is a fact. Some people in the US military, intelligence community and Mike Pompeo’s State Department may be dumb enough to think we can turn the clock back and reverse it, but they are wrong. So what is the appropriate response, in the field of Internet governance, to China’s rise? At IGP we reject the notion that trade in Chinese-made telecom equipment and services constitutes the export of Chinese Communist Party control, any more than use of the Apple or Microsoft platforms by foreign nations means that the US government is controlling them.
A country whose economy and technical capacity is approaching that of the US can be expected to want to influence global standards. Global businesses based on China with a stake in the global ICT market can be expected to want to assert leadership in developing new technologies. Why, we must ask, is it dangerous for Chinese companies to entertain bold new ideas about the next steps in the evolution of data communications? Do initiatives by US companies strike the same fear in the hearts of the rest of the world? The United States has been developing its GENI “new Internet” initiative for more than five years, and the Europeans and Japanese have also been exploring “new Internet” designs. Is there no room in the global economy for a new player to contribute to ICT? Or are we going to respond with economic blockades, and fear-mongering? We know where the Mike Pompeo’s of the world want to go – and we have already seen how destructive it is. Can we do better?
Of course, the rise of a new player will alter the status quo. Is it constructive and reasonable for the developed world to become hysterical at every sign this is happening? Can we develop a more constructive response? That is a theme for another day. In the meantime, don’t hold your breath waiting for that “new IP.”