CircleID has taken the rare exception to publish this essay anonymously at the request of the author. The reason for anonymity is not to avoid personal or professional harm, says the author, but to drive a point regarding the critical subject matter discussed.
Chinese technology policy is now more effective even than their naval posture in the South China Sea, and both are playing out in full sunshine. This success is not about the hardware pillar of Chinese tech policy, though: its focus is the structural approach China and, increasingly, other stakeholders are taking to global Internet Governance.
Place and Timing
Late in the Year of the Pig just gone, China’s offer of a New Internet Protocol was chewed over in senior-level advisory groups of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) after which the formal consensus-building process of that UN organization considered the matter in March and again in July of this year. There were a few briefings and workshops to explain the merits of the system in between times, particularly in Africa, where the ground for novelty and inclusion is fertile. From these briefings, it is clear that a timeframe for rolling out an alternative internet protocol is still notional, but that proponents are aiming at 2024. In the meantime, Huawei, at least, is attracting significant interest around the opportunity by announcing that certain features of New IP will be embedded in their networks within the next 10 years, offering all stakeholders time to evaluate and appreciate the new approach.
The “top-down” New IP system will provide a universally-accessible alternative to the current TCP/IP model that has dominated until now. New IP is proving attractive to governments particularly because it assigns each user of the Internet a unique token for naming and addressing that marks all their activity in cyberspace: an obvious but effective way to limit excessive user privacy and eliminate the wet anonymity that has been characteristic of modern creatives from the authors of the Federalist Papers to JK Rowling. New IP will enable central national authorities to manage the authentication process directly, so that under-resourced governments will now be able totally to deliver on the promise of meting out security among their citizens and anyone they interact with online. In this way, freedom of expression is preserved while creating accountability for that expression to any government that believes it should be punished. As importantly, under this approach e-commerce can also be more effectively surveilled, and web-based innovations or content that build on the work of others can be tracked to their sources and addressed in the way the government of that creator’s country deems the most expedient, or effective, or quickest. And finally, there will be a rebalancing of charges within eCommerce as well. With embedded “kill-switch” functionalities the New IP will become a practical tool to enforce new protective tariffs on digital services and for extracting appropriate revenue from multinationals, in time to help answer the call of many governments that are already trying hard to ensure the WTO Moratorium on Electronic Transmission does not get extended.
The robust proposals of New IP have currency from more than just the Central Kingdom; in Europe, they enjoy support from Telecom Italia and in Africa by at least eleven governments: Burundi, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, South Sudan, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe. There is every reason to expect — there’s no case being made to the contrary, so consensus can only build — that other European entities and governments, those that enjoy strong partnerships with proponents of New IP, will join their voices to this initiative. The United States, which can be sceptical about Chinese initiatives, is today not engaged here, and it is possible to read from this that the U.S. stakeholders are unconcerned, agree, or just take less interest in Internet Governance.
In parallel, Huawei is successfully using its diplomatic and commercial influence to generate further governmental support for the initiative. They have helpfully offered trials of the New IP-enabled applications that are filling actual gaps in many countries: those connected to agriculture, remote education, and artificial intelligence. It is unlikely that such large trials will see a reversion back to use of the old root zone, and so many important industries in the developing world should now become zealous champions of New IP, not just for themselves but in a way that gives them a stake in universalizing the use of the new protocols worldwide.
Give it Time
Over the long run, beneficiaries of the Internet economy may become interested in the possibility of increased compliance costs associated with operating with more than one network. But there’ll be time enough to consider the validity of such concerns since any costs will become clear once there are two systems in full operation worldwide. Here too, quiet observation and cautious but patient restraint by those most affected will provide the space necessary for China to demonstrate the benefits of competition in matters of Internet protocols and to allow them to flourish — a thousand such may yet bloom — out in the bright sunshine.
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