We’d all like to change the world to be how we want it, and China is trying to do just that. With the internet at least. The Chinese government has a plan for a superfast network that will; allow for a live hologram to transmit a video call, be so secure that data deluge attacks that crush websites will be a thing of the past, be so flexible that Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite-driven broadband will fit fine, and be so responsive that you can drive your car with a remote.

Sounds an absolute delight, but not everyone’s keen. The proposal, known as New IP, is being developed and pushed by Huawei and the big three state-owned telcos. Stephen Shankland notes for cnet that it comes packed with political and technical implications that probably will stop it in its tracks. 

With the internet 2.0, New IP would shift the balance of power on the internet, in terms of operations and development, to nations with a centralized telecoms industry that more often than not are state-owned. Taking drastic action against dissidents and detractors would be made easier. In order to have the capability to protect users from abuse, New IP would also have to curtail our privacy and freedom of speech. It also puts the power of future internet growth in the hands of governments, with New IP getting veto over new network ideas and whether new infrastructure could be added according to critics of the scheme. 

“What problem is it the Chinese think they’re going to solve? The problem is they’re not in control. They want to be in control of the internet,” said James Lewis, director of the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, in an interview. “What’s driving this is politics, not technology.”

This isn’t small-time political issues; the internet is possibly one of the single most important things we, as humans, have ever created. Up to now, we’ve been able to adapt it to our society’s uses, taking it from a government-funded academic project in the US to a global communication network that underpins our whole lives – from shopping to school, medicine to entertainment. The World Telecommunications Standardization Assembly (WTSA-20) is coming up in November and the issue of New IP will be there with some nations lying the flag for the new protocol. 

Even if New IP doesn’t take off, China is still influential in how the internet works and has influence through technology and practices. Eric Schmidt, the former Google CEO is among some leading voices concerned about a “splinternet”, where we could see a fragmentation of the internet into networks that no longer work together.

Trump’s administration has said anything publicly about New IP. It has, however, been working to undermine Chinese power and push back on their attempts to get ahead on the international roll-out of 5G and take a leading position in artificial intelligence. Thursday saw William Barr, the US Attorney General, say that China has plans “to dominate the world’s digital infrastructure”. 

Here at 4promedia, we’re looking at how China fits into the global technology markets, and here’s we’re going to explore how the country is pushing to send the internet in new directions and where the resistance is coming from

New IP’s inception

Back in 2019, there was a meeting of the International Telecommunication Union; a UN agency where global governments go to find consensus on computer and communications stuff. The proposal for New IP is backed by Huawei – whose handsets are still banned in the US – along with the telco’s research company Futurewei Technologies. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, along with the three giant telecommunications companies, China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom are also back the proposals.

In one Huawei presentation, the company said the New IP would get data moving faster and reduce comms delays and latency when compared to the current standard, known as TCP/IP – or Transmission Control Protocol. These rules were brought to ensure the data on the network makes it across the system and how the data that gets passed around is broken and packaged to send across different routes to get to the final goal. 

The TCP-IP system is continuously evolving, for example, on the Google QUIC project that was undertaken to speed up networks, and the system is now starting to begin its life as an industry standard from the Internet Exchange Taskforce – these guys are the ones to listen to when looking at the path the internet will take.

During a Futurewei presentation, the company called for technology to evolve, with and ITU group for New IP advocates getting sent up and having “IETFers” come along. If this were to become reality, there’d be more clout behind the government-led efforts and to weaken processes in existence. 

From a business perspective, Huawei is promising plenty of fresh benefits. “New IP will promote trillions [of dollars] of investment and business value of new industries,” its presentation said.

Huawei didn’t comment on this story.

The Chinese government has a full proposal laid out and ready, although we only have a leaked version that was published in The Financial Times. The leak could lead you to believe that ITU should  “shoulder the responsibility of a top-down design of the future network.”

Top-down flop?

The government being in charge in a top-down structure is in stark opposition to what the internet is today – multistakeholder, controlled by self-appointed gatekeepers working on internet technologies and introducing it through international groups that agree on standards. How things are now are nothing like a stuffy, UN-style setup that’s being pushed for. The IETF is heavily in favor of functioning software over proposals that are just theories, and the decision-making process is through consensus rather than boisterous demands.

“The IETF … is open to anyone who cares to join the mailing list,” Andrew Sullivan, president of the Internet Society, a nonprofit that works to improve the internet and keep it open, said in an email. “The people who actually need to build and deploy the systems can be part of deciding how the system will work. The multistakeholder model for Internet governance … is more likely to respond to the internet’s needs than whatever compromise can get worked out among the governments of the world.”

Back in April, the Internet Society released a paper setting its hand against New IP, with the conclusion that it doubles up on existing work. The society also has concerns about mandatory user authentication proposed by New IP – although there are security advantages in nipping attacks in the bud, it also contradicts the openness of the internet.

The European Commission has joined the queue of organizations ready to criticize New IP, along with the IETF and RIPE, the registry in charge of European internet addresses. RIPE has said that New IP gives central authorities the chance to block data from specific sources. On the part of the EC, it’s said that it “defends the vision of a single, open, neutral, free, and unfragmented internet, supporting permissionless innovation, privacy and users’ empowerment, as well as the protection of all fundamental rights.”

Not how we know the internet

On a purely practical level, convincing myriad network operations to take on a technology that doesn’t fit with today’s internet seems nearly impossible. New IP advocates reckon it’s better for connecting “islands”, but the chasm that exists between what we have now and what New IP proposes would make networking communications more expensive and more difficult. When a government mandate isn’t wholesale adopted by the private sector, incompatibilities begin to creep in.

Another practicality is the ability for tech powers in the US have some ability to veto New IP, according to Canalys analyst Alex Smith. 

“The power lies in the big technology companies,” Smith said. “If Amazon, Facebook, and Google want to move in a certain direction, with the backing of infrastructure guys like the Ciscos of the world, that’s probably what needs to happen to shift the needle.” 

It’s wholly possible that something like New IP would be a success in China, where there’s a huge domestic market that has to play by government rules, but even Alibaba, a giant of Chinese cloud computing, hasn’t been able to break out of its domestic market much, so far.

It’s still possible that with the size of the Chinese market, plus its sphere of influence, that New IP could make a dent in the internet we know now and make it look more like it does in China.

The internet through China’s eyes

The internet in China is already rather different to what the rest of the world is used to. 

When the internet in general was being created, it was made to be decentralized so that it could survive nuclear attacks that could blow out chunks of infrastructure. By having peering agreements in place at public exchanges, data pathways are shortened and quickened.

In China, though, traffic is much more centralized, typically shuttled hierarchically through the “three Cs,” China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom, said Internet Society senior director Andrei Robachevsky. “It’s a very static way of routing that doesn’t represent the scalability and agility of the internet,” he said.

China also uses its Great Firewall to block access to sites like Google, Facebook, and Twitter. It requires companies to store data within the country, too.

At the University of Toronto, The Citizen Lab is a research group that looks at online security and our rights. The group has come across an example where China has automated its control over the internet. The findings showed that China had quietly and covertly monitored non-Chinese WeChat users, picked out new messages with politically sensitive or blacklisted images and words, then used that data to censor the same content between Chinese users.

It takes as little as ten seconds for the system to spot an image and get it censored, according to the researcher Jeffrey Knockel. 

Simmering away

Whether we’re talking about principles or practice, the Chinese approach to the internet isn’t favored. Even if, as expected by many, New IP goes nowhere, there is still Chinese influence over the internet. Chinese tech companies dole out Chinese-style infrastructure to dictatorial or and authoritarian governments who want to maintain “digital sovereignty” – a concept that says a country should have control of its internet policies.

“China deploys networks and operates a lot of networks in Africa,” Robachevsky said. “They will happily meet any requirements for digital sovereignty that those countries have,” including data localization, surveillance, and control.”

New IP would be a monumental shift from the internet that we currently use, and that’s a big part of where the opposition comes from. A splinternet could become a reality, with small steps and changes bubbling away under the surface, moving away from the current norms in order to preserve digital sovereignty. These shifts in a different direction could end making a lot of the internet incompatible with each other. 

“The danger is the internet can die from a thousand cuts,” Robachevsky said. “That’s the path for this splinternet.”