Huawei, the large international telecommunications company headquartered in Shenzhen, China, made headlines in May 2020 with its development of a “NEW IP Framework.” The technical document proposed a new framework for a “future Internet protocol” to address shortcomings of the original Internet Protocol’s (IP) design and to “tackle aforementioned challenges and fulfill the requirements of future applications” (Huawei Technologies, May 2020). Huawei’s proposal for a new IP came amid increased Chinese government and company activity in the international standards-setting space—the forums in which technical experts introduce, develop, and adopt (or reject) voluntary, consensus-driven technical rules governing how the internet operates. Huawei’s NEW IP proposal thus underscores the need to better understand Chinese firms’ global advancement of internet standards, including the push to replace the use of open, interoperable, multi-stakeholder-driven protocols currently in use around the world.
Ongoing global contestation over the internet’s shape, behavior, and regulation does not just involve changes at the content level of the internet stack, even if changes to internet content are a stark example of how the internet’s behavioral functionality and user experience differ from one country to another. To give an example, changes at the content level of the stack could include legal prohibitions on accessing certain websites or technical prohibitions on accessing certain mobile applications in a given country. Technical standards are a central element of this contestation as well. Technical standards inform which internet policies are technologically feasible, and conversely, the alteration of technical standards can influence the feasibility of internet policies and practices. Surveillance, censorship, and internet control are all domains where the Chinese government has advanced repressive policies domestically. It is in this broader context that the Huawei NEW IP proposal, focused on internet standards alteration on the global level, merits further evaluation.
Open and Interoperable Internet Protocols
Internet standards are the technical, consensus-driven, and voluntary rules by which internet systems and devices operate and interact. These rules govern functions and processes like data routing, data formatting, computer interconnection, and traffic encryption. The use of agreed-upon rules by internet hardware vendors around the world—which develop home routers, internet switches, laptops, smartphones, tablets, servers, and other systems and devices—enables interoperability between devices that may otherwise be constructed differently and manufactured in different countries. Multi-stakeholder processes drive agreement on globally used internet protocols far more than specific government mandates or any kind of multilateral agreement. In other words, companies like Huawei play a role alongside academics, government experts, nonprofits, and other groups in formulating internet standards.
The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), a nonprofit based in California and formed in 1986, is the primary open standards organization that develops voluntary internet protocols of this kind. IETF’s standards development process is principally guided by five goals: technical excellence; prior implementation and testing; clear, concise, and easily understood documentation; openness and fairness; and timeliness (IETF, undated). Members participating in IETF processes review proposals that, once ultimately agreed upon, can be voluntarily put into place by internet companies around the world. In addition to members from academic, research, and nonprofit communities, internet companies are themselves often heavily involved in IETF standards development processes.
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a United Nations agency formed in 1865, is another organization that works on global technology standards. ITU specifically works to coordinate standards development and spectrum allocation for the telecommunications sector (ITU, undated). Its work is carried out across three “sectors” which organize its main areas of activity: radiocommunications, which encompass satellites and wireless broadband; standardization, or developing standards; and development, which includes expanding telecommunications into emerging markets and working to ‘bridge the digital divide’ between populations globally (ITU, undated).
Both bodies promote shared standards used by companies that impact the feasibility of internet interoperability as well as internet control policies in countries around the world. Yet the two bodies are also very different. Principally, IETF involves a range of business and academic stakeholders in the standards development process while the ITU is situated within the United Nations, a fundamentally state-driven and political organization.
Additionally, not all standards need be open and consensus-based. Internet standards can be closed, meaning they are not implementable (or easily implementable) by just any vendor that wants its devices to interoperate with those made by other vendors. With closed standards, a single company might have dominant or virtually exclusive use of a particular protocol. There are some Internet of Things companies now, for instance, which are developing their own proprietary protocols for connecting devices together. This can limit interoperability between hardware systems; consumers looking to switch their hardware from one vendor to another might face increased costs in merging new and old equipment.
The Chinese Government and the Future of the Internet’s Rules
The Chinese government has promoted the development of internet standards specific to the country that contrast with the aforementioned standards, which are voluntary and consensus-driven at the global level. Beijing’s domestic push for unique technology standards has focused in part on issues like the confidentiality of personal data, as addressed through China’s Personal Information Security Specification (TC260, January 30, 2019). However, government-pushed standards have also enabled greater state control over internet data flows and content dissemination through altering the protocols used to route data within China’s borders. These standards modifications have made state censorship and surveillance policies and practices more technologically feasible. Decisions made at the standards level of the internet therefore have important political effects.
The Chinese government has, of late, elevated its focus on a new suite of internet standards, including those to be promoted beyond its own borders. China’s Standardization Administration (SAC) and Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) said in March 2019 that China will establish an industrial internet standard system by 2020 which will include internet resource management and industrial big data (China Daily, March 11, 2019). The chairman of Tencent Holdings, one of the most valuable multinational technology companies incorporated in China, suggested in May 2020 that the Chinese government should accelerate its push for a domestic industrial internet standard set in addition to focusing on information security issues and cultivating an innovation ecosystem (China Daily, May 21). This fits into the continued discussion of “internet sovereignty” by Chinese government officials and thought leaders. Internet sovereignty refers to states’ desires to extend the traditional concept of sovereignty to apply to all aspects of the Internet within their own borders, implicitly paving the way for top-down controls on internet-related activities. Alongside such countries as Russia, Iran, and Vietnam, China has been a forerunner in promoting the internet sovereignty movement worldwide. Its perspectives are exemplified by a “Sovereignty in Cyberspace” paper released in October 2019 by the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, and Wuhan University at the World Internet Conference in Wuzhen (China Daily, October 2019).
Chinese industry leaders and policymakers thus envision a strong role for the state in developing internet standards, relative to the comparatively smaller role that many other countries believe states should play in internet standards development. It’s worth noting, however, that the usage of terms as “sovereignty” do not carry the same meanings and implications in every country, so understanding the particular language used is also important.
NEW IP Framework
Huawei’s NEW IP document proposes a framework for a future internet protocol with three main features: “variable IP address in length to seamlessly support cross-network communication”; “semantic definition of the IP address to identify both physical and virtual objects”; and “user-defined IP header allowing end-users to specify customized functions to be performed on data packets.” This change to the IP is designed to support what Huawei calls “better and efficiently emerging network applications,” such as what it describes as “ManyNets,” and the global internet’s fragmentation into smaller networks “due to both technical and commercial evolutions.” The document notes that it is an initial work from which Huawei will attempt to “realize” and “validate” protocol designs in a network environment (Huawei Technologies, May 2020).
This document was submitted in 2019 to the United Nations ITU. While referencing “technical” and “commercial” reasons for the global internet’s fragmentation into many smaller and somewhat technically distinct networks, it noticeably did not make any mention of the state-driven reasons for so-called internet fragmentation, including the Chinese government’s push to domestically control the internet within its borders. Worth noting as well is a separate Huawei response to Financial Times reporting about NEW IP, stating that “New IP does NEITHER define governance models for the use of those technologies, NOR lead to ‘more centralized, top-down control of the internet” (Huawei, undated).
Because the United Nations’ ITU relies on state-driven processes with more explicitly geopolitical considerations at play—as opposed to multi-stakeholder processes of the kind used by the IETF—Huawei’s proposal to the ITU situates the new internet standards framework within a state-driven context. This aligns with the Chinese government’s beliefs in a state-centric approach to internet governance and technical development. It also diverges from a decades-long multi-stakeholder process to internet standards development which has deliberately preferred a relatively hands-off state approach to internet standards.
RIPE NCC, a nonprofit regional internet registry based in Europe (one of just five regional internet registries globally), publicly opposed Huawei’s proposal for this reason in April 2020, arguing that such a proposal should be made via IETF processes, not via the ITU. RIPE said that “it has been made clear that the proponents envision departing from a number of key components of the current Internet architecture, in particular where it concerns addressing and forwarding.” It added that “[Huawei] depart[s] from the core philosophy behind TCP/IP and the later Internet: an open and flexible system that is much more the result of decades of evolution rather than a single master plan” (RIPE, April 22).
Also in April, the nonprofit Internet Society released a discussion paper that similarly raised concerns with Huawei’s NEW IP proposal to the ITU. It first placed the Huawei proposal in a broader context, referencing a September 2019 proposal by Huawei, China Mobile, and China’s MIIT for a “strategic transformation” of parts of the ITU that was aimed at reorienting standards development towards a future network. Then, it criticized the basis in Huawei’s paper for introducing a new IP framework. The Internet Society paper stated that “most of the problems” from internet interconnection agreements are “due to non-technical business, accounting and policy reasons. Defining a new protocol system will not resolve these problems.” Furthermore, “Creating a new protocol system to ‘solve’ a perceived interoperability problem adds another interoperability problem and because of increased complexity likely adds security and resiliency issues as well” (Internet Society, April 24).
All told, there remains debate about the exact nature of the relationship between the Chinese government and Chinese companies such as Huawei with respect to their activities in international standards-setting forums. Analysis of Huawei’s NEW IP Framework merits consideration within the broader context of Chinese government pushes for internet sovereignty domestically; Chinese government promotion of state-centric approaches to internet governance internationally; and future conflict areas between the IETF and the ITU where standards-forming is concerned.
Technical standards influence the feasibility of policy objectives on and around the internet, just as internet policies can influence technical standards that dictate internet systems and devices’ interactions. Political analysis of the internet cannot escape technical realities and vice versa. In light of Huawei’s NEW IP Framework and the Chinese government’s international activities on internet governance, this means that the ways in which internet standards are developed remain an important area for observation and analysis with continually growing political effects.
Justin Sherman (@jshermcyber) is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative and a research fellow at the Tech, Law & Security Program at American University Washington College of Law. His work focuses on the geopolitics, governance, and security of the global internet. He has written for The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, Slate, and The Washington Post.
 For more on the development of the global internet sovereignty movement (also referred to as cyber sovereignty) and China’s conceptualization of the global governance of cyberspace, see: Adam Segal, “China’s Vision for Cyber Sovereignty and the Global Governance of Cyberspace” National Bureau of Asian Research, August 25, 2020, https://www.nbr.org/publication/chinas-vision-for-cyber-sovereignty-and-the-global-governance-of-cyberspace/. See also: Hao Yeli, “A Three-Perspective Theory of Cyber Sovereignty,” Prism, National Defense University (U.S.), December 21, 2017, https://cco.ndu.edu/Portals/96/Documents/prism/prism_7-2/10-3-Perspective%20Theory.pdf.
 For the Financial Times article, see: “China and Huawei propose reinvention of the internet,” Financial Times, March 27, 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/c78be2cf-a1a1-40b1-8ab7-904d7095e0f2.
 See: Segal, “China’s Vision for Cyber Sovereignty”, August 25, 2020; and: Eric Rosenbach and Shu Min Chong, “Governing Cyberspace: State Control vs. The Multistakeholder Model,” Belfer Center, August 2019, https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/governing-cyberspace-state-control-vs-multistakeholder-model.