The Web Itself is a Key Prize in the Global Information War
A Global Alliance Is Required To Defend the Internet From Autocracies Who Seek To Control It
In November of 2013 Bill Gates was attending a conference in Germany, and was asked if he was concerned about “balkanization of the Internet,” the growing trend toward islands of authoritative control of the Internet. He replied, “China is really the only one who to any meaningful degree has partitioned their stuff.” There were already a few critics of Gates’ view, but most Internet experts shared the belief that It would indeed take a pretty foolish government to remove its country entirely from the common platform that is the internet as we knew it at that time. Yet, China’s “Great Firewall” was already well-established, the Stuxnet attack on Iran had been revealed in 2010, and Russia’s cyberwarfare tactics of misinformation and outright infrastructure attacks had already been seen in Crimea and elsewhere.
Ironically, less than two months after Gates” pronouncement, early in 2014, Yale University Press published “The Global War for Internet Governance,” by Professor Laura DeNardis. The book is now considered a watershed event in the understanding of the gravity of the problem, but at the time was hardly noticed. Professor DeNardis illuminated the ways in which seemingly neutral technical decisions, being made by standards bodies and private companies, were shaping such critical issues as freedom of expression, privacy, intellectual property, cyber security, and access to information resources in the digital age.
Today, the full range of Internet governance issues are known as Global Technopolitics, now one of the most important aspects of international relations. The UN’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has become the arena where this battle is playing out. The European Union, the United States, Russia, and China are all currently implementing unilateral policies and taking actions with global implications for the Internet. From the inception of the Internet, so-called “net neutrality,” was the rule. It means simply that all Internet traffic should flow freely without preferential or restrictive treatment by any carrier. Now, the notion of net neutrality is being encroached by the concepts of “digital sovereignty,” innocuous-sounding “traffic shaping“, and the “surveillance state.” As more countries require data to remain within their borders, the cloud will become harder and more expensive to access. Meanwhile, the vast amount of data collected from Internet users is growing exponentially and is being resold around the world. Questions have been raised about the data collection methods of certain apps, which has led to bans on the apps in certain countries. Finally, the United States and the EU are both independently moving to reign in the vast power of GAFA, the big tech giants, to control our personal data and manipulate our behavior.
China’s “New IP” Proposal
The most worrying recent development in all of this has gone largely unnoticed. In September 2019, a group of Chinese engineers from Huawei, the Chinese telecom equipment manufacturer, made a presentation to the ITU in Geneva, proposing to scrap the fundamental Internet protocol, known as TCP/IP, that makes the Internet work. The Chinese were proposing an entirely new Internet Protocol that would be controlled by nation states rather than individuals. The implication that the new proposal was intended to support China’s authoritarian “surveillance state” policies was obvious. Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE already are said to support the idea. Also worth note, such a proposal should not have been presented to the ITU, but rather to the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the Internet’s technical management organization. The Huawei engineers most likely chose to go around the IETF and directly to the ITU because the history of the IETF has always been one of “net neutrality,” and suspicion of corporations and government interference. In the 1990’s Microsoft learned the hard way that the IETF was not receptive to corporate arrogance and bullying. In this case, only now has this effort by Huawei and essentially the Chinese government, begun to raise alarm bells within the Internet community. Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism and a social scientist at Harvard University, has said that Huawei’s move at the ITU “is frightening to me and it should be frightening to every single person.” There is reason to believe that the ITU will respond to this surprise proposal and the manner of its presentation in the same way that the IETF responded to Microsoft. The EU-based Internet governance body RIPE has already formally gone on record opposing China’s New IP Proposal.
The Need for a New Global Internet Alliance
In confronting China on many fronts, the current Trump Administration has taken a largely go-it-alone approach, which risks the possibility that China could eventually succeed in establishing the global rules in the digital world. By way of example, China successfully supplanted the United States in the new Trans-Pacific trade alliance when the United States withdrew. The Internet is far more than China and the United States. The EU, India, Japan, other countries, and the tech giants are all key players in the management of the IT world. There are both an urgent need and an opportunity for much greater synergy among these players. They are all at odds with the American government and each other, which actually provides ample opportunity for them to compromise, collaborate and mediate on the matter of Global Technopolitics, and to form a formidable counter-force to China. These players need to end their disarray and disagreements, form a new Internet governance alliance, or face the possibility of ceding control of Internet governance to China and its allies. The Economist, Foreign Affairs and other journals have all argued that this should be the way forward to manage the challenge from China. As the Trump Administration draws to a close, it is important that the Biden Administration fill the vacuum immediately. As Biden has appointed John Kerry to be his cabinet-level Climate Change czar, what is needed now is the appointment of cabinet-level czar for the digital economy, to drive the formation of a new Global Internet Alliance. France’s digital minister, Cedric O, and La French Tech provide an available model for how to do it.