G7 And Technical Standards: Blink And You Might Have Missed The New Battleground

from the governments-encroaching dept

Amid all the news about the third wave of the COVID-19 Pandemic and the politics behind the vaccination roll out, you might have missed the Ministerial Declaration from the G7 Digital and Technology Ministers’ meeting. As per tradition, the G7 Digital Ministerial provides the opportunity for the seven richest countries of the world to declare their commitments and vision on the type of digital future they would like to see. The document is non-binding but it has the tendency to provide some useful insights on the way the G7 countries view digital issues and their future positions in multilateral fora; it is also informative of other, more formal, multilateral processes. On 28 April 2021, a statement was made addressing key technology issues and opportunities including security in ICT supply chains, Internet safety, free data flows, electronic transferable records, digital competition and technical standards.

Yes, you read that right - technical standards. In the last several years technical standards have moved from the realm of engineers into wider politics. News stories have been replete with China’s efforts to become a competitive force on 5G, AI and facial recognition standards and its wish to be developed internationally based on their national rules, culture and technology. But the public eye turned more closely to China when it was discovered that the facial recognition standards being developed by China in the UN system were from countries on the US sanctions list and used by China for monitoring Uighurs.

None of this is new. For the past few years and for anyone who has been paying attention, China has been strategically positioning itself in various standards bodies realizing that shifting from a unipolar to a multipolar world order cannot happen unless it is capable of demonstrating a more strategic and competitive approach to the domination of the west. What was the tipping point, however, that made the seven richest countries in the world offer explicit language on standards inserted into their declaration? Everything seems to be pointing to the "newIP" standard proposal, recommending a change in the current Internet technology, that was put forward by Huawei and supported by China in the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). Although this new standard did not manage to pass the ITU’s study group phase, it did raise the eyebrows of the West. And, rightly so. 

Historically, Internet standards have paved their own path and have majorly managed to stay outside of politics.  In one of the earliest Requests for Comments (RFC), the definition of a standard was specific and narrow:  a standard is “a specification that is stable and well-understood, is technical competent, has multiple, independent and interoperable implementations with operations experience, enjoys significant public support, and is recognizably useful in some or all parts of the Internet”. 

Traditionally, governments have had a hands-off approach in the development and deployment of standards related to the Internet; their development was part of the consensus-based, community-driven process developed and nurtured by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and their deployment was left to the market.  A standard’s life has always depended on its utility and contribution to the evolution of the Internet. 

This seems to be the case less and less. Over the past years, governments have shown increasing interest in the development of standards, and have sought ways to inject themselves into Internet standardization processes. There are two distinct ways that this trend has emerged. First, there's China, which actively seeks to displace the current Internet infrastructure. That was clear in the attempt with the “newIP” proposal. China has been strategic in not directly suggesting a complete rejection of the Internet model; instead, its claims have been that the Internet cannot meet future technologies and needs and, therefore, a new infrastructure, developed  and nurtured by governments, is necessary. The second trend continues to support the open, market-driven standards development processes, but seeks ways for governments to be more actively involved. This, so far, has mainly been interpreted as identifying ways to provide incentives for the creation and deployment of certain standards, often those deemed strategically important. 

Even though these approaches reflect different political and governance dimensions - China supports a top-down approach over the West’s bottom-up model - they do share one commonality: in both cases, politics are becoming part of the standardization process. This is entirely unlike the past 30 years of Internet development. 

This could have significant implications in the development and future of the Internet. There are benefits from the current structure: efficiency, agility and collaboration. The existing process ensures quick responses to problems. But, its main advantage is really the collective understanding that standards are driven by what is “good for the Internet”; that is, what is required for the Internet’s stability, resilience and integrity. 

This doesn’t mean that this process is perfect. Of course, it comes with its own limitations and challenges. But, even then, it is a tested process that has worked well for the Internet throughout most of its existence. It has worked - despite its flaws - because it has managed to keep political and cultural dimensions separate. Participants, irrespective of background, language, and political persuasion have been collaborating successfully by having the Internet and what's good for it, as their main objective. 

On the contrary, intergovernmental standards are driven by political differences and political motives. They are designed this way. This is not to say that governments should not be paying attention to the way standards are developed. But, it is crucial to do so in ways that do not seek  to upend a model that is tested and responsive to the needs of the Internet. 

Dr. Konstantinos Komaitis is the Senior Director, Policy Strategy and Development at the Internet Society.

Dominique Lazanski is the Director of Last Press Label, and a Consultant in International Internet and Cybersecurity Standards and Policy.

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Filed Under: china, g7, governments, internet standards, multistakeholder, politics, standards

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