China’s Authoritarian “New IP” Proposal Supported by Huawei, Iran, Russia, and Saudia Arabia
The “Splinternet” Is Becoming a Global Battleground
1964 was a harbinger of the future we now inhabit, but no one knew it at the time. It was the year of the Free Speech Movement (FSM) at the University of California Berkeley, the first stirrings of the cultural revolution to come. FSM epitomized the fear of a world dehumanized by mainframe computers controlled by corporations. Yet that same year Marshall McLuhan also first articulated his famous concepts of “the medium is the message,” and his vision of a “global village.” McLuhan was foreshadowing the rise of the global Internet that was first demonstrated eleven years later, in 1975, with the first TCP/IP demonstration. We can now say that 1964 was a pivotal milestone of the many changes to come, good and bad, that have brought us to the precarious state of the Internet we have today. How did we get here and what are the likely implications for the future of the Internet? Read on…
The Rise And Fall of Digital Utopianism
In his book, “From Counterculture to Cyberculture,” Stanford Professor Fred Turner argues that the earliest stirrings of cyberculture and the philosophy of digital utopianism began with the hippie movement, and particularly with Stewart Brand, a young and extremely bright thinker, also from Stanford, who went on to create The Whole Earth Catalog featuring the first photograph of the “whole earth.” Marshall McLuhan’s concept of a global village was beginning to take shape. Brand unquestionably influenced Steve Jobs. The coming of the personal computer and later the Internet only added to the sense of euphoria and optimism about a coming digital age, a digital utopia.
The creation of the first commercial web browser, Mosaic, in the early 1990s provided the first graphical user interface to the Internet and graphical content. By 1994, the World Wide Web had reached China, with Internet cafes springing up in all of the major cities in China. Both the country’s early netizens and the government came to realize that the free flow of information could have some big political implications. The government decided it needed to take action. By 1996 it had already started taking steps to control the internet. 1996 marks the beginning of the decline and fall of digital utopianism.
China’s Great Firewall Inspires Other Authoritarian Regimes
China’s vast system of Internet censorship is now widely known as the Great Firewall. This system has now been augmented by a similarly vast surveillance system, utilizing face recognition and other cyber techniques to monitor its citizens. It has inspired the creation of similar censorship and surveillance systems in dozens of other countries, notably Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and even the United States following the revelations of Edward Snowden. The expansion of the Internet also inevitably brought bad actors and outright criminals out of the woodwork to make life on the Web more complicated and dangerous. This has now evolved even more dangerously into the dark world of government-sponsored cyber-espionage and cyberattacks such as the Stuxnet malware attack on Iran. The bad actors are notably China, Iran, Israel, Russia, and the United States. Now that this Pandora’s box has been opened it’s unlikely to be closed again.
China’s Proposed “New IP” Specification: Splinternet Becomes a Battleground
The Internet is now more often referred to as the “Splinternet.” But that is not the end of it. The next threat to the Internet is an effort led by China’s Ministry of Industry & Information Technology and Huawei, to establish authoritarian control of the global Internet by introducing proposed changes to the basic TCP/IP Internet protocol, bypassing the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) by taking their proposal straight to the UN International Telecommunications Union (ITU). China’s initiative doesn’t dwell on its authoritarian aspects. It does wrap its political aims in the terminology of technological progress in order to attract support.
New IP also reflects China’s belief that its form of government is superior to democracies, which in their view are inherently weak and vulnerable. China repeatedly makes the point in other forums that their form of capitalism is superior to democratically free and open markets. It also espouses its sovereign right to control and censor the free exchange of ideas. All of this is embedded in “New IP.”
Authoritarian Regimes Undue Influence on Global Web Apps
Finally, we have the undue influence of authoritarian regimes, in this case primarily China, but not exclusively, on global application vendors. China’s internet controls on international vendors were very apparent early on. Google launched a Chinese version of its search engine in 2000, it was already slow, unstable, and blocked about 10% of the time. In 2002, Google was completely blocked in the country for the first time, but only for nine days. Google’s search engine was blocked again in 2003. That’s the year the Great Firewall went online.
A 2018 New York Times article described in detail how Kaspersky Lab’s anti-virus software was utilized by Russian GRU hackers to conduct espionage. Edward Snowden leaked a top-secret report that detailed the GRU/Kaspersky espionage. Kaspersky was granted “plausible deniability,” by doing nothing overt. Its source code was clean but nevertheless offered an obscure backdoor for the Russian hackers, which was used very effectively.
More recently, serious concerns have been raised concerning Chinese software vendors Zoom and TikTok with good reason. Much like the case with Kaspersky, both vendors can claim “plausible deniability,” But the concerns are legitimate. The Economist has recently published in-depth analyses of both TikTok and Zoom that raise serious questions about both vendors that should give us all pause as China’s NewIP proposal makes its way to the ITU.
Where Do We Go From Here?
It is clear that the free and open global Internet, unfettered by government influence that was first envisioned by Marshal McLuhan and Stewart Brand, then invented and implemented by Vin Cerf and Sir Tim Berners-Lee is under severe attack. It is a mirror, reflecting the extreme shifts in global politics, a new Cold War, and a backlash against globalization itself. As democracy comes under attack, the only effective remedy is awareness and vigilance by the people. The exact same is true of the Internet.