For the last two centuries, great powers—both nations and their associated firms—have fiercely competed to set the technical standards for leading technologies. By imposing their preferred standards, nations not only solve technical problems to their advantage but they also project power globally. Standards determine what kind of technology will prevail in the future, ensuring market dominance to national champions, while forcing foreign competitors to adapt at hefty costs. As the industrialist Werner von Siemens reportedly put it: “He who owns the standards, owns the market.”
Given the broad ramifications of the internet, its governance represents the regulatory battleground of the future. The internet is heavily dependent on shared standards across multiple platforms that have evolved over decades to assure compatibility across hardware and software. These shared standards enable highly decentralized components developed by disparate parties to integrate into an effective overall system. Talking about the original vision of the internet, one of the inventors of its protocols, Vinton G. Cerf, argued that “universal connectivity among the willing was the default assumption.”
This notion was based on a commitment to a unified cyberspace. But the world of nation states is not unified and unfragmented. It is territorial and sovereign. And now many countries, especially authoritarian regimes, want the basic governing structure of the internet to be the decisions of the state. China in particular has proposed a fundamental internet redesign—the “New IP”—whose official goal is to build “intrinsic security” into the web that in practice means creating the capacity to become a massive surveillance and information control system.
The battle for the internet governance of the future will differ from past struggles over technical standards in a fundamental way. Setting these rules is not exclusively about addressing technical issues or projecting global power. It is about promoting different visions of the world: a decentralized and democratic one (the traditional internet) or a centralized and authoritarian one (China’s “New IP”). This is an entirely new chapter in the history of standards setting that will contribute to shape the relationship between China and the West, with enormous geopolitical and economic ramifications.
Since the dawn of the First Industrial Revolution, setting standards has traditionally been a prerogative of technical experts, largely from the private sector. The regulation of the internet has roughly followed a similar pattern. From 1969 to 2000, the dominant ideology of the internet community resisted almost any form of conventional government regulation. By virtue of its openness and international nature, it was believed that the internet could not be regulated. But despite widespread support for a sort of “cyberanarchy,” the internet has always been regulated through a set of open standards and platforms that required the engagement of many stakeholders: firms, governments, academics, and nonprofits.
The internet is truly a network of networks. It has evolved based on a modular structure requiring collaboration and coordination across multiple parties. The modules are part of a protocol stack, a term used by engineers to describe the many layers in a packet-switched network. Each layer handles a different set of tasks associated with networked communications (e.g., addresses assignment, sessions managing, and congestion control). Engineers focusing on one layer need only to be concerned with implementation details at that layer.
In short, a line is drawn between application layers (where humans and technologies interface) and the core architectural layers (where data are transmitted). The application layer is inherently political. Think about someone chatting on Facebook or watching a YouTube video. Communications take place at that level and, if the layer is centrally controlled, governments could limit freedom of expression and thought, while violating the privacy of an individual and targeting specific groups.
This open and modular standards model has been characterized by pluralistic, voluntary, bottom-up participation, driven by innovation needs. Key organizations, such as the internet Engineering Task Force, the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers or the World Wide Web Consortium, are mostly comprised of engineers and have emerged to establish these shared standards. The iconic internet protocol suite (TCP/IP), for example, was introduced in 1973 to allow physically distinct networks to interconnect with one another as “peers” in order to exchange packets through special hardware.
In this structure, operators of different components of the system cannot observe all the aspects of the information sent. Imagine the internet as operating like a postal system. Messages that move from one computer to another are broken down into small packets. Each packet is stamped with the IP address of the computer it wants to reach. Eventually, the receiving computer reassembles the packets in the correct order. The current system is akin to a postman who delivers envelopes along his route without knowing what’s inside them, while only the final recipient of the mail can piece the packets back together and read the entirety of a coherent letter.
A highly decentralized internet system is compatible with the democratic philosophy of Western countries. Even so, democracies are interested in regulating it more to reduce the influence of Big Tech, while giving intelligence agencies greater access to users’ data. But China is going a step further. Since 2014, President Xi Jinping has framed becoming “a cyber great power” as the cornerstone of China’s internet policy. The aspiration is to embed its own ideological tenets into the design and architecture of the internet.
Beijing is trying to shift the development of the internet standards from the multistakeholder, collaborative, voluntary consensus system of the IETF, IEEE or W3C towards a multilateral, nation-state driven forum like the United Nations International Telecommunication Union (ITU). This choice is telling about Beijing’s goals and interests. Unlike the open standards models, negotiations within ITU are restricted only to member states in a traditional form of state-centric diplomacy. This explains Beijing’s failed efforts to appoint a former Huawei executive to the role of ITU’s Secretary General in 2022.
China’s primary entity for advocating for new internet standards is Huawei. In September 2019 the company submitted to the ITU a proposal for the creation of technical standards underpinning a new, centralized internet architecture. The proposal was rejected, but China has since been working on domestic pilots. In April 2021, Beijing announced a backbone network to connect 40 leading Chinese universities in order to test what has been advertised as the “internet of the Future.”
The strategy is to improve these standards domestically and legitimize them internationally, at least among authoritarian regimes that would be the natural adopters. China’s internet vision is supported by Iran, Russia, and Saudi Arabia and it has recently turned the World internet Conference, which it founded and controls, into a formal organization to shift authority away from Western-dominated institutions.
The New IP is supposed to connect devices and share information and resources across networks through a centralized control of the data that are transferred along the way. Advocates of this new internet architecture emphasize that the old IP is outdated as it was originally designed to identify physical objects being bounded to specific locations, whereas in the age of the internet of Things a plethora of objects (computers, sensors, content, services, and other virtual entities) operate on the web.
The traditional IP is unaware of the content or services it carries, which hampers it from providing the best forwarding solution. China’s alternative internet infrastructure, instead, would introduce new controls at the level of the network connection. In short, a network operator will be able to identify the sender, the receiver and the content of the information shared, with the ability to stop the dissemination and access to that information. Returning to the postal system analogy, China would allow the postman to open the envelopes, see what’s inside them, and then decide whether or not to deliver the box to its destination.
The New IP can be seen as a technical solution to a political problem. A centralized authority would be able to track the browsing history and the online habits of any individual, while deciding who can access the internet. These features could convert the New IP into an instrument for social control and state surveillance that, in its most dystopian form, would enable far-reaching censorship and propaganda.
Going forward, China is likely to keep investing in its own New IP, gathering the support of several authoritarian regimes that are natural adopters of that kind of technology. Since the West is unlikely to support any such standard, there is a growing risk of a splintered internet, with a traditional, mostly decentralized architecture on one side and a centralized architecture that does not respect fundamental values and norms of open societies on the other side.
But even among those jurisdictions that opt for the Chinese model there would be the risk of lack of interoperability. Rather than a unified world wide web, citizens would connect to a patchwork of national internets, each with its own rules. This is consistent with the idea of cyber sovereignty that Beijing outlined in its 2017 International Strategy of Cooperation on Cyberspace, where it stated: “Countries should respect each other’s right to choose their own path of cyber development, model of cyber regulation and internet public policies.”
The reality is that the multistakeholder standards development organizations will continue to function and define internet standards. Even if China implements its New IP vision, it will still need to address and meet the existing standards and structures of the internet at points of interconnection with the West if it wishes for information to flow across sovereign boundaries, something that is essential in a world of integrated global supply chains and commerce which is a major source of China’s economic strength.
From a technical perspective, the traditional IP system based on TCP/IP requires substantial upgrades. At the “host” level it suffers from inadequate memory and inadequate processors, along with latency problems at the “link” level. At the “IP layer” there are problems with discarded packets and reassembly failures.
Even so, over the last forty years the layered and modular architecture of the internet has proved to be extremely adaptable, incorporating new networking technologies, meeting new requirements, and supporting an exponential number of users. As highlighted by the Internet Society, the modular character of the internet architecture allows for innovation in one area without having to rearchitect the entire internet. The introduction of new wireless technologies, for example, has not required an upgrade to the entire internet.
Western powers should leverage the technical flexibility of the traditional IP to propose upgrades within the existing framework, preserving the collaborative engineering efforts. In April 2022, the European Union and the United States led the efforts behind the “Declaration for the Future of the Internet” that affirmed the objective of preserving an “open, free, global, interoperable, reliable, and secure internet.” The declaration was signed by more than 60 countries, mostly democracies. This is symptomatic of the growing risk of a splinternet.
Western governments should foster an internet that is consistent with democratic values. But it is in their interest to engage China to avoid a costly fragmentation of the internet. This can be achieved by striking a balance between the old multistakeholder standards development approach and the intergovernmental one that is promoted by Beijing. After all, Western governments want to shape the internet governance to protect the data of their citizens, build walls against cyberattacks and tame the power of tech companies. For better or worse, the internet will increasingly become a matter of national sovereignty.
For two centuries, technical standards have shaped great power dynamics. But never has a technical standard been so consequential as the development of internet protocols. At its core, the issue is not just about fragmentation of the internet between democracies and authoritarian regimes. It is about the mismatch between the global boundaries of the internet and the geographic boundaries that define nation states, and the desire of sovereign states to manifest control over information flows to reflect their underlying governance philosophies. Democratic states must recognize that the evolution of the internet has far reaching ramifications for global stability and the types of societies we will live in.