Future Tense

China’s New Organization Could Threaten the Global Internet

The Chinese flag flies in front of a building.
The Chinese national flag is seen on a flagpole in Beijing on Aug. 8, 2016. STR/Getty Images

Since 2014, China’s internet censor, the Cyberspace Administration, has held a World Internet Conference where technology companies and government representatives from around the world convened to discuss the internet, and where Beijing promoted its vision for state internet control.

What was once an event in China is now a formal coalition interested in shaping the internet’s future. Recently, a Chinese state news agency announced that Beijing plans to transform the global conference—into a new, international internet organization.

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While information on the new internet body is still trickling out, it doesn’t look good for the global internet. Chinese state news agency Xinhua said that the organization’s founding members include “institutions, organizations, businesses, and individuals” from nearly 20 countries, which it didn’t name, with the head of China’s internet censor at the helm. Other Chinese media have indicated that Afghanistan, North Korea, Cambodia, and Syria are among the member countries and claimed that “world-renowned internet leaders, authoritative industry bodies, internet Hall of Fame inductees, and others” have joined as well. If Beijing successfully builds and leverages this coalition, the new organization could threaten global technology standards and the global internet itself.

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Technology standards and protocols comprise the agreed-upon guidelines and rules for how devices around the world interact. They enable your emails to send internationally, your new phone to work on an old cell network, and HDMI cables to plug into TVs everywhere. For all technology standards’ ubiquity, however, many internet standards operate on voluntary buy-in. There is no global internet regulator that forces every company to ensure their laptops, cellphones, and routers all interoperate; likewise, there is no single, supernational regulatory body that defines what form that interoperability takes. Instead, internet standards-setting happens mainly through the nonprofit Internet Engineering Task Force, or IETF, where industry experts, researchers, academics, government representatives, and others convene to define these technical rules. Then, companies around the world choose to implement them—to have their devices interconnect and help enable global connectivity. While companies might not use the same standards for some technologies, like Apple devices requiring their own cords, companies have strong incentives to adopt the expert-developed internet standards.

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Going back decades, Beijing has taken issue with this process. It has tried to move internet standards-setting away from organizations that develop voluntary standards, with widespread consultation, and toward organizations that are controlled by governments, like the United Nations. The aim is relatively straightforward: If the Chinese government wants technology standards that advantage its companies and give it greater opportunities for top-down internet control, then it wants governments, not companies and civil society organizations, to be in charge of setting technology standards. Such a position reflects the Chinese government’s idea of “cyber sovereignty,” where governments can and should control the internet in their borders.

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Not every Chinese standards proposal is a tool of the Chinese government, and Chinese companies have many reasons for proposing new technology standards for computers, cellphones, and other devices, from boosting their competitive advantages to receiving monetary incentives for writing standards documents. Nonetheless, Beijing wants to globally spread its vision for government internet control, and it has worked in direct coordination with Chinese companies to do so, like when Huawei, two state-owned telecoms, and China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology co-signed a “New IP” proposal to replace the globally used Internet Protocol with one that would enable surveillance and top-down government control.

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In this vein, China’s new World Internet Conference organization poses at least two risks to the global internet. The Chinese government has largely failed, to date, in moving internet standards-setting away from an open, voluntary, consensus process toward a top-down government model—where instead of researchers and others deciding how emails should be sent and how internet traffic should be encrypted, governments like those in China set the rules.

If the World Internet Conference starts getting enough buy-in, however, Beijing could begin spreading more of its technology standards within that bloc. For example, it’s possible that Chinese standards currently facing opposition in the U.N., like Huawei’s “New IP” proposal, could receive more pick-up among countries friendly to China and sympathetic to the “cyber sovereignty” view of the internet. Even if many countries and companies refuse to buy into the standards, the Chinese government might find a more receptive view among World Internet Conference members. Top-down Chinese standards could spread, then, where they would otherwise be shot down in other internet organizations.

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More broadly, the Chinese government could leverage the new World Internet Conference organization to build coalitions opposed to a global internet. For instance, there is an upcoming fall election for the UN’s tech agency, the International Telecommunication Union, where a Russian candidate is going up against an American one; Chinese authorities could use the new body to lobby governments in support of Russia’s candidate, Rashid Ismailov, to give Beijing and Moscow a better foothold in the U.N. Beijing could also use the World Internet Conference organization to build support for its proposals in other bodies, like those in the United Nations calling for greater state control of the internet for “cybercrime” purposes. Just as the Chinese government has used the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and other “international organizations” to promote its interests, it could do the same here.

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Much is up in the air, and it’s impossible to know how China’s new internet body will evolve.
Participation or lack thereof from Western governments and companies, among others, could be a decisive factor. So, too, is whether internet “swing states” like India, South Africa, Mexico, Indonesia, and Brazil, among many others, get involved—and if so, to what degree.

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For American policymakers worried about Beijing’s efforts to increase government control of the internet around the world, the solution is not to mimic Beijing’s approach and have the U.S. government direct private-sector standards-setting in an effort to “combat China.” Nor is it to double down on the Biden White House’s “club of democracies” approach that targets mostly wealthy, white, Western countries without giving strong voice to Global South and other countries. Instead, tracking the new World Internet Conference organization is key—alongside building a coalition to preserve a global internet that includes a wide range of states around the world.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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