How China is trying to create a new internet in its own image

The New IP plan’s promised improvements may never arrive, but China could reshape the internet in other ways that today’s tech powers don’t like.

China wants a shiny new internet — and you may like what the country has in mind. Its plan promises a network fast enough to show you as a live hologram in a video chat, secure enough to block data deluge attacks that crush websites, flexible enough to easily accommodate Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite-powered broadband and responsive enough to let you drive a car remotely.

But there’s a big problem with this proposal, called New IP, that Huawei and China’s three powerful state-owned telecommunications companies are pushing. It’s freighted with political and technological baggage that mean its chances for success are low.

New IP would shift control of the internet, both its development and its operation, to countries and the centralized telecommunications powers that governments often run. It would make it easier to crack down on dissidents. Technology in New IP to protect against abuse also would impair privacy and free speech. And New IP would make it harder to try new network ideas and to add new network infrastructure without securing government permission, say critics in the competing effort to improve existing internet technology.

“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.”

At stake is the future of one of the most important technologies humans have ever invented. The internet has proved to be remarkably adaptable, growing from a US government-funded academic research project into a world-spanning foundation for communications, commerce and entertainment. The New IP issue is heating up ahead of the World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly (WTSA-20) in November, where allies hope to cement its status.

China can influence the internet even without New IP by spreading its current technology and practices. Some observers, including former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, fear a “splinternet,” where today’s global network fragments into incompatible national networks.

As part of CNET’s focus on China’s place in the technology world, here’s a look at how the country is trying to push the internet in new directions, and how some existing powers are pushing back.

China’s New IP proposal arrives

The New IP proposal emerged at a 2019 meeting of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a UN agency where countries hash out computing and communications matters. Proposal backers are Chinese network equipment maker Huawei — yes, the company whose products the US government is trying to ban around the world — along with Huawei’s US research arm, Futurewei Technologies, the Chinese government’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, and China’s three main telecommunications companies: China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom.

Huawei said in one presentation that New IP would offer higher data rates and shorter communication delays than todays’ prevailing internet standard, TCP/IP. That stands for Transmission Control Protocol, the rules that ensure network data successfully arrives at its destination, and Internet Protocol, which governs how data is broken up into packets and independently routed across many network-hops to the final destination.

TCP/IP continues to evolve. One example is the Google QUIC project that speeds up networking and that now is maturing into an industry standard at the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), a key organization charting the future of the internet.

A Futurewei presentation calls for future evolution to take place instead at an ITU group for New IP and suggests “IETFers” join in. If they did, it would bring new clout for the government-controlled effort and weaken the existing process.

Huawei also promised big business benefits from the technology. “New IP will promote trillions [of dollars] of investment and business value of new industries,” its presentation said.

Huawei didn’t provide comment for this story.

The formal New IP proposal — not available publicly but published by The Financial Times — suggests the ITU should “shoulder the responsibility of a top down design of the future network.”

Top-down flop?

That approach, with governments in charge, is the antithesis of today’s “multistakeholder” model in which a variety of largely self-appointed people develop internet technologies at a range of standards groups. It looks nothing like stuffy governmental machinations found at the UN. For example, the IETF prefers software that actually works to theoretical proposals and makes decisions by consensus judged by how loudly members hum in support. (Yes, really.)

“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.”

The Internet Society panned New IP in an April paper, concluding that it duplicates work already underway. It’s also concerned that New IP’s mandatory authentication of users on the network, while useful for security advantages like tracing attacks, also runs counter to the internet’s openness.

Other high-profile New IP critics include the European Commission, the IETF and RIPE, a registry that doles out internet addresses in Europe. RIPE warned that New IP would let central authorities block data from a particular source more easily. And the EC said 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.”

Incompatible with today’s internet

In practical terms, it’ll be hard to convince countless network operators to adopt technology incompatible with today’s internet. Advocates for New IP say it’s designed to better link network “islands,” but the gap between today’s internet and the incompatible New IP internet would make networking communications harder and more expensive. And governmental mandates that aren’t universally accepted by the private sector lead to incompatibilities.

In practice, technology powers in the US have some veto power over New IP, said 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.” 

Something like New IP could catch on in China, an enormous domestic market subject to Chinese rules, but so far big Chinese cloud-computing powers like Alibaba haven’t done as well spreading beyond their home countries.

Still, China is big enough and has enough aligned countries that it would be a significant foothold for any ambition to make the world’s internet look more like it does in China.

How China sees the internet

China already has a different internet than the one most of the world uses.

From its earliest days, that more widely used internet has been decentralized. It’s explicitly designed to survive nuclear attacks that might take out some network equipment. Peering agreements between companies and at public exchanges can shorten data pathways.

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.

The Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto research group studying online security and rights, discovered an example of how China has automated its internet controls. It found that China silently monitored non-Chinese users of the WeChat messaging service, spotted newly created messages with politically sensitive blacklisted images or text, then began censoring those same images sent between Chinese users.

The turnaround time between spotting the images and censoring them could be as little as 10 seconds, said researcher Jeffrey Knockel.

A thousand cuts

Practically and on principle, many outside China don’t like China’s internet approach. But even if New IP flops, China still has influence. Chinese technology companies supply Chinese-style internet infrastructure to authoritarian governments who favor “digital sovereignty” — the idea that a country should be able to set its own online 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 dramatic break from today’s internet, which is part of the reason it faces such challenges winning allies. But the real splinternet could arrive instead by countless small steps away from today’s internet norms in the name of digital sovereignty. Those steps could accumulate to cause major incompatibility problems.

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

All Rights Reserved for  Stephen Shankland

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