China released its 14th Five-Year plan for economic development last month, including its intended next steps in technology. The blueprint makes clear that, even before the ink is dry on many 5G contracts for broadband telecommunications, China and its networking giant Huawei are gearing up to ensure their vision of the internet goes global.

But Huawei’s plans for 6G and beyond make U.S. concerns over 5G look paltry: Huawei is proposing a fundamental internet redesign, which it calls “New IP,” designed to build “intrinsic security” into the web. Intrinsic security means that individuals must register to use the internet, and authorities can shut off an individual user’s internet access at any time. In short, Huawei is looking to integrate China’s “social credit,” surveillance, and censorship regimes into the internet’s architecture.

The New IP proposal itself rests on a flawed technical foundation that threatens to fragment the internet into a mess of less interoperable, less stable, and even less secure networks. To avoid scrutiny of New IP’s shortcomings, Huawei has circumvented international standards bodies where experts might challenge the technical shortcomings of the proposal. Instead, Huawei has worked through the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union (ITU), where Beijing holds more political sway.

The appropriate place for a review of the New IP concept would be the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). The IETF and other standards bodies are examining most of the technical changes to internet infrastructure that make up the New IP proposal, and these bodies have said it is premature to make a dramatic change without more information and consensus. Huawei’s plan to rebuild the internet from the top-down based on speculative-use cases – uses of the internet that might one day exist as opposed to an established use that current users or businesses are already clamoring for – bucks the logic of internet governance, which postulates that change should be incremental and based on established needs.

Authoritarian Blocs

Huawei’s and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) turn to the ITU is no surprise, even though the ITU’s jurisdiction does not include internet architecture. When it comes to internet governance, the CCP and other authoritarian regimes have long favored multilateral international institutions like the ITU over multistakeholder international institutions such as the IETF or the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Multistakeholder institutions are governed by a diverse array of representatives from industry, civil society, and government; multilateral institutions only provide voting power to national governments. In multistakeholder fora, civil society and industry representatives tend to favor a free and open internet, which dilutes the influence of national governments, many of whom are likely to favor a tightly regulated, censorable internet.

Authoritarian governments can marginalize private industry and citizens’ groups by working through multilateral fora such as the ITU, meaning the U.N. and the ITU will naturally be more receptive to proposals like New IP that grant national governments more control over the internet. In 2019, China and Russia leveraged a similar authoritarian bloc within the U.N. to pass a censorship-friendly cybercrime resolution. A comparable coalition of likeminded countries could help China push through the New IP proposal, shortcomings and all. Circumventing conventional internet-governance institutions in favor of the ITU also sets a precedent for future internet governance-related proposals to go through the ITU instead of more-balanced multistakeholder institutions.

What’s more, China has held the top position in the ITU for the last seven years. During his tenure as secretary-general of the ITU, Houlin Zhao of China has encouraged the expansion of the ITU’s mandate from just a telecommunications agency to a “technology agency” by working on technology unrelated to telecommunications such as internet architecture, the internet of things (IoT), and artificial intelligence (AI).

Organizing the U.S. Government for Success

Because of limitations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the ITU’s World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly (WTSA-20), where New IP will be formally debated, has been delayed until February 2022. Therefore, Washington has time to prepare for, and confront, the first major referendum on New IP, even if it is in a less-desirable standards forum.

In its March 2020 report, the U.S. Cyberspace Solarium Commission (CSC) highlighted another issue, the disparity between how the U.S. government engages at international fora like the ITU and the effort China is willing to make. In fact, New IP resulted in part from a previous U.S. abdication of presence and leadership, as the initial inquiry into the need for this new technology emerged out of a Huawei-dominated ITU focus group that lacked American input. This asymmetry in representation extends beyond that particular focus group. In the runup to the WTSA-20, China nominated representatives for management positions in virtually every ITU study group. Even when Chinese firms do not win leadership positions, China sends droves of meticulously prepared, synchronized delegations to push standards beneficial to Beijing and its national champions. By contrast, U.S. representatives appear to be prepared in an ad-hoc manner. The United States is officially competing for one-fourth the number of chairmanships or vice chairmanships as China at WTSA-20.

In past meetings, the United States has endeavored to keep the ITU focused on its appropriate areas of expertise (telecommunications) and stay away from intervening on other issues (the internet, artificial intelligence, blockchain, etc.) better suited to other standards bodies. The United States is correct to oppose ITU mission creep on principle. However, simply voicing principled opposition by itself is not enough to contain Chinese efforts to push ITU mission creep.

The CSC recommended that the United States make a concerted effort to compete with China on internet governance, and articulated that this effort will require (1) getting the U.S. government organized for success, (2) building effective public and private buy-in, and (3) working with like-minded international allies and partners.

Organized to Compete in International Fora

The first step is to get the U.S. government organized and resourced to compete with China in these fora. This requires the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) at the Department of Commerce, as well as the State Department and sector-specific agencies to work together to develop a strategic approach to dealing with issues like New IP at international fora. This will require increased funding for NIST. The establishment of a State Department Bureau for Cyberspace Policy, as laid out in the Cyber Diplomacy Act of 2021, would provide much of the organizational reform required. However, the State Department will require increased funding and focus to coordinate action and address the challenge of declining U.S. influence in internet governance and international digital standards.

A good first objective should be electing an ITU secretary-general who will respect the limitations of the ITU’s mandate and who is less amenable to government control over the internet. A U.S. representative, Doreen Bogdan-Martin, is running for the position in 2022. Even if Bogdan-Martin does not win the election, the United States should work to ensure the eventual winner will discontinue Zhao’s policy of ITU mission creep into areas such as New IP.

The worst-case scenario would be for Russia’s candidate, Rashid Ismailov, to win the secretary-generalship. Ismailov leads a delegation that routinely attempts to enhance the ITU’s power over internet governance at the expense of multistakeholder institutions. Ismailov is personally on record advocating for “providing governments and non-profit organizations with an opportunity to control activities” of ICANN, one of the most important multistakeholder bodies in internet governance. Ensuring Ismailov or a like-minded candidate does not win should be a top priority for the United States.

The second step toward ensuring the United States can compete effectively with China on internet governance is determining the optimal mix of incentives and prodding to get American firms to more actively represent U.S. interests. Historically, when the United States leaves engagement in international fora up to its private enterprises alone, American firms’ main incentive for participating becomes direct self-interest.

U.S. firms see limited incentives to make long-term commitments to slower-moving international fora such as the ITU’s standardization arm, the ITU-T. To put it another way, no firm wants to waste its resources playing defense against abstract, long-term threats such as Huawei’s plan to reinvent the internet. By contrast, Chinese firms receive financial incentives from the government to craft international standards and are publicly pressured into acting as a united front in these bodies.

This hands-off approach to public-private collaboration on the part of the United States is insufficient when it comes to international standard setting and is in part what allowed Huawei to assert influence in the standards bodies such as the ITU-T and 3GPP in recent years. U.S. government and industry must work together on the vast majority of issues where the two can agree and thus counter Chinese efforts.

Third, the United States needs to build coalitions of likeminded countries in internet-governance institutions. Strengthening ties and coordinating action with traditional allies is critical but insufficient. The United States also needs to find common ground with non-traditional partners that may not share U.S. values of an open internet but are also skeptical of a Chinese-led order. The 2019 Sino-Russian cybercrime resolution, which initiated the drafting process for a treaty that would enable governments to clamp down on free speech on the internet, passed in part because 34 countries abstained. Convincing countries like Mexico, Brazil, and the Philippines to oppose China’s power plays will be key to preventing initiatives like New IP from taking hold.

The United States cannot afford a similar failure to compete, as was the case in international fora associated with 5G development and international cybercrime. Chinese dominance in standardization will cost American firms market share and can open the door for more Chinese backdoors around the globe. Huawei dominance on New IP and 6G would not only create a less free, less interoperable internet, it would pave the way for authoritarian governments to gain expanded say over future changes to the internet for years to come.

The Chinese New IP proposal can be successfully contested, but only if the United States rallies its private-industry partners and like-minded international democratic governments to the cause. They must all work together to collectively rein in the threat of authoritarian governments using multilateral institutions such as the ITU to export their vision of the internet worldwide before it is too late.

IMAGE: People visit a Huawei booth during the Mobile World Congress in Shanghai on February 23, 2021.  (Photo by HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images)