Inside China’s controversial mission to reinvent the internet

On a cool day in late September, half a dozen Chinese engineers entered a conference room in the heart of the United Nations district in Geneva with a radical idea. They had an hour to convince delegates from more than 40 countries of their vision: an alternative form of the Internet, to replace the technological architecture that has underpinned the Web for half a century.

While the Internet belongs to everyone and nobody, they were building something very different – new infrastructure that could put power in the hands of nation states, not individuals.

The team that designed the proposal for a new IP (Internet Protocol) came from the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, which sent the largest delegation of all companies to the September meeting.

At the meeting, held at the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations agency that sets common global standards for technologies, they presented a simple PowerPoint. This did not disturb many details on the operation of this new network, nor on the specific problem it solved. Instead, it was dotted with images of futuristic technology, from life-size holograms to autonomous cars.

The idea was to illustrate that the current Internet is a relic that has reached the limits of its technical prowess. It was time, Huawei proposed, for a new global network with a top-down design, and the Chinese should build it.

The new intellectual property proposal could integrate a centralized enforcement system into the technical fabric of the Internet. Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia have already shown their support for Chinese alternative network technology proposals © Alexander Glandien

Governments everywhere seem to agree that the current model of Internet governance – essentially illegal self-regulation by private companies, mainly American – is broken.

New intellectual property is the latest in a series of efforts to change the way the Internet works, led by governments that were largely overlooked when it was created half a century ago. “The conflicts surrounding internet governance are the new spaces where political and economic power is deployed in the 21st century,” wrote academic Laura DeNardis in her 2014 book. The World War for Internet Governance.

The Chinese government in particular has viewed the design of Internet infrastructure and standards as central to its digital foreign policy, and its censorship tools as proof of concept for a more efficient Internet, to be exported elsewhere.

“Of course [China] want a technological infrastructure that gives them absolute control that they have achieved politically, a design that corresponds to the totalitarian impulse, “ says Shoshana Zuboff, author of The era of surveillance capitalism and a social scientist at Harvard University. “So it scares me and it should be scary for everyone.”

Huawei says the new IP is being developed only to meet the technical demands of a rapidly changing digital world, and that it has not yet incorporated a particular governance model into its design. The telecommunications giant is leading an ITU group that is focusing on the future network technology needed by 2030, and New IP is being adapted to meet these demands, said a spokesperson.

What we know about the proposal comes mainly from two jargon-filled documents that have been shared with the FT. These were presented in camera to ITU delegates last September and in February. One is a proposal for technical standards and the other is a PowerPoint presentation entitled “New IP: shaping the future network”.

ITU headquarters in Geneva, where Huawei officials presented ideas for a new top-down Internet protocol. Parts of technology may be ready for testing by next year

ITU headquarters in Geneva, where Huawei officials presented ideas for a new top-down Internet protocol. Parts of the technology may be ready for testing by next year © Getty

Despite the power of the Internet today, it has no regulator; instead, power is largely held by a handful of American companies – Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook. This lack of central oversight is the very thing that has allowed technologists to transform the way we communicate and live, but it has also allowed deep rifts in our social order, including the manipulation of public dialogue, the disruption of democracy and the rise of online surveillance.

Today, following the Cambridge Analytica scandals and Facebook’s role in inciting real-world violence in Myanmar, many experts see the Internet as a civic space that requires better public hygiene. Governments – whether democratic or authoritarian – are tired of being left out and campaigning for more influence online.

The balance of power is beginning to change, but the scope of what states want varies widely. The United States, the United Kingdom and Europe, for example, want to adapt the current system to introduce more regulatory power and give intelligence agencies better access to users’ personal data.

The Chinese proposal for new intellectual property is much more radical and could integrate a centralized enforcement system into the technical fabric of the Internet. Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia have previously expressed support for Chinese alternative network technology proposals, sources at ITU meetings said. The proposals revealed that plans for this new network have already been developed and that construction is underway. Any country will be free to adopt it.

“Right now we have two versions of the Internet – a capitalist, market-led surveillance-based version that is exploitative; and an authoritarian version also based on surveillance, ”explains Zuboff. “The question is: will Europe and North America join forces to build the legal and technological frameworks for a democratic alternative?”

The new IP presentation paints a picture of a digital world in 2030 where virtual reality, holographic communication and remote surgery are omnipresent – and for which our current network is unsuitable. The traditional IP protocol is described as “unstable” and “largely insufficient”, with “many security, reliability and configuration issues”.

The documents suggest that a new network should rather have a “top-down design” and promote data sharing systems between governments “thus serving AI, Big Data and all kinds of other applications”. Many experts fear that under the new IP, Internet service providers, usually state-owned, will control and supervise all devices connected to the network and be able to monitor and control individual access.

The system is already under construction by engineers from “industry and academia” in “several countries,” Huawei team leader Sheng Jiang told the group in September, although he will not reveal who they were due to commercial sensitivities. Spectators included ITU veterans, including government officials from the United Kingdom, the United States, the Netherlands, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and China.

For some participants, the very idea is anathema. If the new IP address was legitimized by the ITU, state operators could choose to implement a Western or Chinese Internet, they say. The latter could mean that everyone in these countries would need permission from their internet provider to do anything over the internet – whether it’s downloading an app or accessing a site – and administrators might have the power to deny access on a whim.

Rather than a unified global network, citizens may be forced to connect to a patchwork of national internet, each with its own rules – a concept known in China as cyber sovereignty.

In recent periods of civil unrest, Iran and Saudi Arabia have cut internet connectivity for long periods, with the exception of some

In recent periods of civil strife, Iran and Saudi Arabia have cut internet connectivity for long periods, with the exception of some “essential” services © Alexander Glandien

Recent events in Iran and Saudi Arabia provide a glimpse of what it would look like. These governments blocked global internet connectivity for long periods during the civil unrest, allowing only limited access to essential services such as banking or healthcare. In Russia, a new Internet sovereign law adopted in November enshrined the government’s right to monitor web traffic closely and showed the country’s ability to separate from the global web – a capacity that Chinese companies, including Huawei, have helped the Russians build.

Experts now wonder whether China’s vision of Internet governance could shift from a defensive vision, in which the government wanted to be left alone to impose authoritarian Internet controls at home, to a more assertive approach, in which the country openly advocates for others. follow his example.

The creators of New IP say that parts of the technology will be ready for testing next year. Efforts to convince delegations of its value will culminate in an important ITU conference to be held in India in November. To persuade the ITU to approve it within the year, so that it can be officially “normalized”, representatives must reach an internal consensus, freely based on a majority agreement. If delegates fail to agree, the proposal will be put to a closed-door vote in which only member countries will be able to participate, cutting off the views of industry and civil society.

The rapid timetable is causing particular concern to Western delegations and requests have been made to slow the process down, according to documents consulted by the FT. A participant in the Dutch delegation wrote in an official response, leaked to the FT by several sources, that the “open and adaptable nature” of the Internet – both its technical structure and its mode of governance – was fundamental to its success and that he was “particularly concerned” that this model departed from this philosophy.

Another scathing reprimand from a British delegate, also leaked to the FT, said: “It is far from clear that technically sound justifications have been provided for taking such a drastic step. Unless these are to come, the reasonable basis for future work or even ongoing research activities on these topics is, at best, weak or nonexistent. “

Patrik Fältström, a non-conformist engineer with long hair, known in his native Sweden as one of the fathers of the Internet, is one of the most vocal critics of the new intellectual property. In the early 1980s, Fältström was a math student in Stockholm when he was hired to build and test the infrastructure for a new technology that the US government called the Internet.

His job was to write a series of protocols that allowed computers to send text to each other. “In Europe, we were maybe 100 people in Sweden, 100 in the United Kingdom, 50 here, 20 there, we all knew each other. We used to joke that if there was a problem, you knew who to call, ”he says.

Today, Fältström is a digital advisor to the Swedish government and its representative to most major Internet standards organizations, including the ITU. Thirty years after helping to assemble the building blocks of the Internet, it embodies the Western cyber-libertarian ideals that were woven into its foundation.

“The Internet architecture makes it very, very difficult, almost impossible for anyone providing Internet access to know or regulate the use of Internet access,” he says. “It is a problem for law enforcement and others who would like an ISP to control it, so it is not used for illegal activities such as film pirating or child abuse.

“But I am ready to accept that there will be criminals who will do bad things and the police will be unable to fight [all of] he. I accept this sacrifice. “

For Fältström, the beauty of the Internet is its nature “without permission”, as demonstrated by the Arab Spring. “We have to remember,” he says, “it’s a balance between being able to communicate and to control, but people who have a voice are always more important.”

A stark contrast to this view can be found in a river village called Wuzhen near Shanghai, which is emptied every fall to make room for technical executives, academics and policy makers attending the ambitious world conference of the Internet. The event was created by the China Cyberspace Administration in 2014, a year after President Xi Jinping came to power. A row of world flags greets visitors – a nod to Xi’s vision of creating “a shared future community in cyberspace”.

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, at the 2017 World Internet Conference in China. Foreign participation has declined in recent years as the technology war between the United States and China has intensified and leaders feared to be too aligned with Beijing

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, at the 2017 World Internet Conference in China. Foreign participation has declined in recent years as the technology war between the United States and China intensified and leaders feared being too aligned with Beijing © Getty

Tech executives, from Tim Cook of Apple to Steve Mollenkopf of Qualcomm, spoke at the event, crediting Xi’s attempts to bring together the international tech elite. But in recent years, foreign participation has declined American-Chinese Technological War intensifies and leaders fear being too closely aligned with Beijing.

There is a precedent for such fears. During the first year of the event, the organizers slipped a draft joint declaration under the doors of the guests’ hotels at midnight, setting out Xi’s point of view on each nation’s right to “cyber sovereignty” . Customers were invited to return with any changes before 8 a.m. After the protests, the organizers dropped the case completely. But the fact that management attempted such a move reflected Xi’s digital ambitions.

In the early 1990s, the Chinese government began to develop what is now known Large firewall, a system of internet controls that prevent citizens from connecting to banned foreign websites – from Google to the New York Times – as well as blocking politically sensitive national content and preventing mass organization online.

Beijing technical controls are supported by large teams of government censors as well as those hired by private tech companies such as Baidu and Tencent. Although anyone in the world can technically host their own website using just a computer and an Internet connection, in China you need to apply for a license to do so. Telecommunications providers and Internet platforms are also required to assist the police in monitoring “crimes”, which may include actions such as calling Xi “steamed bun” in a private discussion group , an act punishable by two years in prison.

Chinese President Xi Jinping at the World Internet Conference in 2015, where he told participants that each nation should have independent authority over its own Internet

Chinese President Xi Jinping at the 2015 World Internet Conference, where he told participants that each nation should have independent authority over its own Internet © Getty

Despite this, the Chinese Internet is not 100% effective in blocking content deemed sensitive or dangerous by the government. “The leaking global internet remains frustrating for Chinese censors, and they have dealt with it at great cost and effort, but if you could make these problems go away almost completely using a more automated and technical process, maybe like New IP, that would be fantastic for them, “says James Griffiths, author of The Great Firewall of China: How to Create and Control an Alternative Internet Version.

“Building a new version of the Internet could prevent more people from acquiring politically dangerous knowledge, thereby saving a great deal of effort, money and manpower on the censorship side. They can choose the commands they want, integrate them with technology and deploy them. “

The establishment of a sophisticated alternative to the Western Internet would also fit in with China’s ambitions to expand its digital footprint on a global scale. “At the very beginning of the Internet, China was a follower and did not recognize, like many other countries, how disruptive the Internet would be,” said Julia Voo, research director for the China Cyber ​​Policy Initiative at the Harvard University in Belfer. Center.

“As they realized how important it was, [they] channeled more resources into technology development. . . and we can see their influence increased in many standards bodies like the ITU in the past two or three years.

“But the United States and others have made a strategic mistake by failing to see the value of growing infrastructure in developing markets,” she added. “There is still a lot of infrastructure to provide and over the past 10 years, Chinese companies have been at their disposal, especially in Africa.”

Beijing has signed memoranda of understanding on building a “digital silk road” – or advanced IT infrastructure system – with 16 countries. Huawei says it has 91 contracts to supply 5G wireless telecommunications equipment worldwide, including 47 in Europe – despite US warnings that Huawei’s involvement amounted to giving Chinese access to national security secrets, an allegation denied by the society.

“By proving that you can control and monitor your home internet intensely and prevent it from being used as a tool to rally people against the government, combined with the economic success of its businesses, China has made this vision incredibly attractive to regimes – autocratic and others – all over the world, ”says Griffiths.

ITU was created 155 years ago, making it one of the oldest international organizations in the world, even before the United Nations. It is installed in a group of glazed buildings on Place des Nations in Geneva. On the 10th floor is the airy office of Bilel Jamoussi, the head of ITU study groups, born in Tunisia – the units that develop and ratify technical standards.

The room is lined with a huge library from which Jamoussi draws a dusty blue book – his doctoral thesis, written 25 years ago, on traffic passing through the Internet. At the time, there was a desire to build a new networking protocol to meet the growing base of Internet users. Ultimately, the engineers opted for a layer on top of the existing TCP / IP infrastructure. Technology, invented in the late 1970s by computer engineers working for the United States Department of Defense, was a means of transmitting messages between computers at the speed of light, using a special addressing system.

Bilel Jamoussi, Head of ITU study groups, which ratify technical standards.

Bilel Jamoussi, Head of ITU study groups, which ratify technical standards. “Twenty years ago, it was Europe and North America that dominated the development of products, solutions and standards, we now have an eastward orientation” © YouTube

“Twenty-five years ago we had this conversation as a community – is it TCP / IP or is it something else – and then a lot of design and development came to a kind of rescue [it]Explains Jamoussi. “We are now, I think, at another turning point, saying, is this enough, or do we need something new?”

In its early days, the ITU oversaw the first international telegraph networks. Since then, it has grown from 40 countries to 193 and has become de facto the standardization body for telecommunications networks. The standards produced there legitimize new technologies and systems in the eyes of some governments – especially those in developing countries that do not participate in other Internet organizations. In the end, they give a business advantage to the companies that have built the technology on which they are based.

Over the past 21 years, Jamoussi has witnessed a geopolitical shift. “The pendulum has tilted to the east, and now we see more participation from China, Japan, Korea,” he said. “Twenty years ago, it was Europe and North America that dominated the development of products, solutions and standards, we now have an eastward orientation.”

On one of the marble walls of the ITU, backlit flags are hung, showing the largest donor countries. The Chinese flag – currently number five – was not there at all a few years ago, said an employee, but it is progressing gradually.

New intellectual property is the latest grenade launched in the ITU arena, but it is not the first Internet-related standard to be offered as an alternative to the original Western-style system. The governments of Russia, Saudi Arabia, China and Iran have been pushing the idea of ​​alternative networks for years, according to participants who wanted to remain anonymous.

“In the early 2000s, once you saw widespread use of the Internet, you suddenly had this idea of ​​democratization, which is basically to give people more control and more information. For authoritarian governments, it was something they were not happy with, ”said a member of the British delegation. “And so the work started, around the beginning of the 2000s, especially in China, then a little later in Iran and Russia, on how to create an alternative to the standards and technologies that were still being developed mainly by Americans. “

But in recent years, Chinese companies have switched to new intellectual property. “There is a new paradigm, it is not voice and text and video and people talking, it is real-time control of something remotely, or telepresence, or holograms”, explains Jamoussi. “These new applications require new solutions. And now it’s more doable, it’s no longer science fiction, it’s almost a reality. “

Cutting-edge projects for a new IP is Richard Li, chief scientist at Futurewei, Huawei’s R&D division located in California. Li worked with Huawei engineers based in China, as well as state-owned telecommunications companies China Mobile and China Unicom, with the explicit support of the Chinese government, to develop the technology specifications and the proposal for standards.

Having Huawei at the helm will sound the alarm for many in Europe and the United States, where governments are concerned that Chinese technology is being developed as a vehicle for state espionage. The advent of 5G – a much higher bandwidth network that will serve as the digital backbone for a more automated world – has raised growing concern that products developed by Huawei will be built with “backdoors” for consumers. spies in Beijing.

Richard Li, chief scientist at Futurewei, Huawei's R&D division. Li worked with the explicit support of the Chinese government to develop technology that would allow

Richard Li, chief scientist at Futurewei, Huawei’s R&D division. Li worked with the explicit support of the Chinese government to develop the technology that would allow “cyber sovereignty” © YouTube

Last year, the United States excluded Huawei from sale in its market, and the British government is involved in a parliamentary battle over the company’s involvement in its basic telecommunications infrastructure.

The FT contacted Li to discuss the new IP, but Huawei declined the opportunity to explain the idea in more detail. The company said in a statement, “The new IP aims to provide new IP technology solutions that can support. . . future applications such as the Internet of Everything, holographic communications and telemedicine. New IP’s research and innovation is open to scientists and engineers from around the world to participate and contribute. “

Critics argue that the technical claims made in the New IP documentation are false or unclear and represent a “solution to the search for a problem”. They insist that the current IP system is suitable for use, even in a fast-scanning world. “The way the Internet has grown is through modular and weakly coupled building blocks, it’s the brilliance of it,” says Alissa Cooper, president of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), an organization industry-dominated standardization in the United States. .

In November, Li introduced himself to a small group at an IETF meeting in Singapore, which Cooper attended. “[The current infrastructure] is in stark contrast to what you see in the new IP proposition, which is this type of top-down monolithic architecture that wants to tightly couple applications to the network. This is exactly what the internet was not designed for, “she said.

The implications for the average user could be enormous. “You push control into the hands of [telecoms] public operators, “said a member of the British ITU delegation. “Therefore [it means] now you can not only control access to certain types of online content, or track that content online, but you can actually control a device’s access to a network. “

For internet pioneer Patrik Fältström, the beauty of the Internet is its

For internet pioneer Patrik Fältström, the beauty of the Internet is its “unlicensed” nature. “We have to remember,” he says, “it’s a balance between being able to communicate and controlling, but people who have a voice are always more important” © Alexander Glandien

China is already in the process of setting up a credit rating system for its people, based on online and offline behavior and past “crimes”, noted the member of the delegation. “Donc, si le score de crédit social d’une personne est tombé en dessous d’un certain montant parce qu’il publiait trop sur les réseaux sociaux, vous pourriez en fait empêcher ce téléphone de se connecter au réseau.”

Les opérateurs de télécommunications chinois disposent de nombreuses données sur leurs abonnés. Selon la loi, les clients doivent s’inscrire pour un numéro de téléphone ou une connexion Internet en utilisant leur vrai nom et identification, qui est ensuite accessible par d’autres sociétés telles que les banques. La loi du pays sur la cybersécurité stipule également que tous les «opérateurs de réseaux», y compris les sociétés de télécommunications, doivent tenir des «journaux Internet» – bien que ce que cela implique ne soit pas clair.

Jamoussi fait valoir que ce n’est pas à l’UIT de juger si les propositions pour une nouvelle architecture Internet sont «descendantes» »ou pourraient être utilisées à mauvais escient par des gouvernements autoritaires. «Bien sûr, tout ce que vous construisez est une épée à double tranchant. Vous pouvez utiliser n’importe quoi pour le bien ou pour le mal, et c’est la décision souveraine de chaque État membre », dit-il. “À l’UIT, nous ne nous engageons pas dans ce mauvais usage potentiel de la technologie, nous nous concentrons uniquement sur” en voici quelques-uns. . . problème de la technologie de la communication, voici une aspiration, en tant que communauté, construisons une solution pour y parvenir. “Mais la façon dont les gens l’utilisent est vraiment à eux.”

Les ambitions de Pékin de renforcer les contrôles dans l’infrastructure Internet ne sont pas perçues par tout le monde comme un problème – simplement comme le prochain chapitre de son évolution.

«Internet était censé être une infrastructure neutre, mais il est devenu un bras de contrôle politisé. De plus en plus, l’infrastructure Internet est utilisée à des fins politiques – pour réprimer les gens économiquement et physiquement – nous l’avons vu au Cachemire, au Myanmar et dans les révélations de Snowden », explique Niels ten Oever, ancien délégué néerlandais à l’UIT.

«Pour moi, la question primordiale est: comment construire un réseau public sur des infrastructures privées? C’est le problème avec lequel nous nous débattons. Quel est le rôle de l’État par rapport au rôle des entreprises? “

Selon lui, les entreprises conçoivent des technologies principalement dans un but lucratif. «Internet est dominé par les entreprises américaines, toutes les données y circulent. Alors, bien sûr, ils veulent garder ce pouvoir », dit-il. «Nous avons peur de la répression chinoise. Nous faisons des caricatures des Chinois d’une manière impérialiste-raciste limite. Mais la gouvernance d’Internet ne fonctionne pas aujourd’hui. Il y a de la place pour une alternative. “

Partout où notre avenir numérique se construit actuellement, il semble y avoir un accord mondial pour dire que le moment est venu pour une meilleure version du cyberespace. “Je pense [some] les gens diraient que notre modèle actuel d’Internet est profondément défectueux, sinon cassé. À l’heure actuelle, il n’existe qu’un seul autre modèle vraiment complet et pleinement réalisé, celui de la Chine », écrit Griffiths dans Le grand pare-feu de Chine.

«Le risque est que si nous ne parvenons pas à trouver un troisième modèle – un qui autonomise les utilisateurs et accroît la démocratie et la transparence en ligne, et réduit les pouvoirs des services de sécurité des grandes technologies et du gouvernement – alors de plus en plus de pays pencheront vers les Chinois modèle, plutôt que de faire face aux retombées de l’échec de la Silicon Valley. “

Aujourd’hui le “Déclaration d’indépendance du cyberespace»- le principe directeur d’Internet – commence à ressembler de plus en plus à une relique. Le manifeste, écrit en 1996 par John Perry Barlow, co-fondateur de la fondation américaine sans but lucratif Electronic Frontier Foundation et parolier de Grateful Dead, était un appel aux armes.

«Gouvernements du monde industriel, vous, géants las de chair et d’acier, je viens du cyberespace, la nouvelle maison de l’esprit», commence le document. «Au nom de l’avenir, je vous demande du passé de nous laisser seuls. Vous n’êtes pas les bienvenus parmi nous. Vous n’avez aucune souveraineté là où nous nous réunissons. “

Cette opinion est maintenant devenue un retour à une époque antérieure à la capitalisation boursière de billions de dollars dans l’industrie de la technologie, disent les critiques. Mais il y a encore de l’espoir – et peut-être une troisième alternative à nos deux internets d’aujourd’hui.

«Ce qui nous différencie de la Chine maintenant, c’est qu’à l’ouest, le public peut toujours se mobiliser et avoir son mot à dire. Une grande partie de cette responsabilité incombe désormais aux législateurs de protéger la démocratie à l’ère de la surveillance, qu’elle soit dictée par le marché ou autoritaire », a déclaré Zuboff. «Le géant endormi de la démocratie est enfin en train de remuer, les législateurs se réveillent, mais ils ont besoin de sentir le public dans leur dos. Nous avons besoin d’un Web occidental qui offrira le genre de vision d’un avenir numérique compatible avec la démocratie. C’est l’œuvre de la prochaine décennie. “

Madhumita Murgia est la correspondante technologique européenne du FT. Anna Gross est journaliste aux marchés FT. Reportage supplémentaire par Yuan Yang et Nian Liu

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