Is China fragmenting the Internet? This question has buzzed around media and academic debates for years (Hoffmann et al. 2020). However, answers are multifaceted, as reality is much more complex than yes-or-no. First, there is no such thing as a monolithic “China” in political and economic terms, as Chinese public and private stakeholders engage in complex interplays of cooperation and confrontation (Shen 2022). Second, definitions of Internet fragmentation are manifold and debated (Drake et al. 2017; Mueller 2017).
To develop these points, this article examines the so-called ‘New IP’ proposal from China. ‘IP’ refers to ‘Internet Protocol’, the basic standard that allows Internet-based communication thanks to unique numerical identifiers (so-called ‘IP addresses’) for each network-connected device. Until now, the global Internet has operated with a globally intercommunicable IP system, which originated in the United States in the 1970s. Does the New IP concept introduced from China threaten to break this unity? This article argues that China and its domestic industrial stakeholders have no interest in contributing to Internet fragmentation.
Internet fragmentation is not an abstruse technical matter. On the contrary, it can impact the everyday lives of billions of users and trigger (as well as result from) sharp international political confrontation (Nanni 2021). However, as other contributors to this issue also underline, the manifold definitions of Internet fragmentation complicate discussion of the topic. In particular, commentators disagree on whether ‘Internet fragmentation’ should be limited to the creation of separate non-interoperable Internet infrastructures (Mueller 2017) or whether the concept should also encompass wider aspects such as the accessibility of services across the globe (Drake et al. 2017). Indeed, whether or not the unavailability of platforms such as Twitter in China should be seen as Internet fragmentation or a different economic and regulatory matter is still debated (Shen 2022).
Due to its growing technological power and its authoritarian domestic political system, China’s emergence in global Internet governance is widely watched with suspicion in North America and Europe (Segal 2018). In particular, China has historically been seen as a leading promoter of a state-based Internet governance mechanism centred around the United Nations (UN), as opposed to the nongovernmental multistakeholder governance ecosystem centred around the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) (Flonk et al. 2020). As a private not-for-profit entity founded in 1998 and based in California, ICANN is the epitome of the 1990s international hegemony of the United States (US) and the global expansion at that time of the liberal international order. Indeed, the 1990s were characterised by growing international market liberalization, extension of the capitalist economic model to former communist-ruled countries, and expanded membership of ‘western’ bodies such as the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). This expansion of liberal market power was also seen with the surge in commercial use of the Internet (especially through the World Wide Web) and the launch of private-based multistakeholder Internet governance (Palladino and Santaniello 2021).
Given the strong US-centricity of the ICANN-based Internet governance mechanism, political contestation followed. China initially stood as a sharp critic of this model and supported a UN-based state-centric alternative (Cai 2018). However, this stance faded with time, as evidence of ICANN’s resilience increased (Arsène 2018). Yet, despite China’s growing participation in, and publicly stated support for, ICANN, contestation has never completely faded (Negro, 2020).
The ‘New IP’: Neither ‘new’ nor an ‘IP’
The so-called ‘New IP’ clarifies several key points in relation to China’s engagement of Internet governance. First, the New IP is a technical proposal that triggered heated political debate (Li 2020). Second, it illustrates how China’s contestation in this field has not faded, since the New IP was proposed to the intergovernmental International Telecommunication Union (ITU), as opposed to the private-based Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the traditional ‘home’ of IP standardization (Sharp and Kolkman 2020). Third, the heated political and media reactions triggered by the New IP proposal and the much more nuanced (although still concerned) responses from the technical community showcase how the sentiment around China’s engagement in technology is often characterized by fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD), thus hampering evidence-based policy debates (Mueller 2020).
The New IP proposal was introduced at the ITU in 2019. The idea was launched by several actors from China: the private-owned network manufacturer Huawei; the state-owned Internet service providers (ISPs) China Mobile and China Unicom; and the Chinese Academy of Information and Communication Technologies (CAICT). The initiative was supported by China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) (Li 2020).
The New IP proposal has been put forward in the context of the elaboration of new technologies to meet the ITU’s Network 2030 requirements, which set a roadmap for new Internet-based and telecommunication technologies to be developed by 2030. The ITU periodically puts forward requirements for future telecommunication technologies, including mobile connectivity and nowadays object-to-object connectivity. Indeed, ITU standards function in interaction with standards elaborated in other venues like ICANN and the IETF, but this multilateral institution remains the main worldwide standardization body for telephony as well as requirements for future-generation telecommunications such as 5G and 6G. Indeed, Network 2030 specifies what 6G technology will have to enable.
Public debates around the New IP proposal started with a March 2020 article in the Financial Times which suggested that China intended to ‘reinvent the Internet’ (Murgia and Gross 2020). Academics and technical experts downplayed this exaggeration, since the New IP proposal was still fuzzy (Mueller 2020). To be sure, the technical community, including the IETF, expressed doubts and concerns around the proposal and its (in)compatibility with the existing Internet architecture (IETF 2020). Nonetheless, the awareness that Internet infrastructure develops mainly through industry consensus helped to quiet most fears. Meanwhile the promoters of the New IP proposal reframed it under an alternative name of Future Vertical Communications Networks (FVCN).
There are valid reasons to rebrand ‘New IP’ as FVCN. Indeed, the technical proposal puts forward an overall telecommunications infrastructure, rather than a building block for a broader infrastructure such as the ‘Old’ IP and related standards elaborated at the IETF (Sharp and Kolkman 2020). Doubts exist within the technical community, as the way the New IP has been initially described contravenes the basic building-block architecture of the Internet. Furthermore, in its current form FVCN would not be backward-compatible with the existing IP-based Internet infrastructure (IETF 2020).
Nonetheless, the actual form and functioning of the New IP/FVCN proposal have shifted throughout the process (Durand 2020). Moreover, globally dominant sectors of the Internet industry are unlikely to adopt a non-interoperable infrastructure, as it would increase costs and reduce economies of scale. Therefore, the fragmentation potential of the FVCN proposal is low, unless political pushes from the Chinese government override the economic interests of industrial players. As Mueller (2017) puts it, the industry has already succeeded to bridge other non-interoperable standards, making them seamlessly communicable. However, if states were to insist, then a split could take place, including the establishment of separate standardization bodies. Yet, the New IP proposal is unlikely to trigger this grimmest scenario.
One of the main arguments advanced by proponents of the New IP is that current digital communications infrastructure is unreliable for high-precision Internet of Things (IoT) devices, such as those employed in surgery (Li 2020). This technical solution therefore could arguably position FVCN as a non-IP infrastructure for IoT within the framework of the Network 2030 requirements – much like other non-IP technologies elaborated by other industrial actors, such as the NIN (Non-IP Networking) technologies elaborated in the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), although specifications and functionalities may differ deeply.
In other words, at the current stage the New IP/FVCN technical proposal looks more like a non-IP technology for IoT usage rather than a competing IP. While the potential to develop as an alternative infrastructure exists, FVCN is unlikely to go in this direction. In fact, the Chinese government does not display any intention to fragment the Internet governance mechanism to a point where different bodies would manage different (and non-interoperable) basic networking protocols. On the contrary, Chinese corporate stakeholders – including state-owned ones – are active in the IETF. As Arkko (2022) indicates, Huawei is among the most energetic companies in terms of authoring IETF technical documents such as Requests for Comments (RFCs) and Internet Drafts. Furthermore, both Huawei and the Chinese state-owned network manufacturer ZTE have increased their involvement in the IETF (Nanni 2022). Indeed, global industrial actors can maximise network economies of scale only if the Internet infrastructure is universally interoperable (Mueller 2017). Producing different devices for different national/regional markets (as occurred with 3G and 4G telephones) increases costs (Nanni 2021).
Discussion of Chinese stakeholders’ positions vis-à-vis Internet fragmentation requires more breadth and depth than this short analysis allows. Nonetheless, the New IP/FVCN scenario shows the complexity of the ‘China fragmentation’ issue and the reasons for existing misinterpretations around it. Lack of technical competence among policymakers and the media, along with technical unclarity from the proponents of a new technology, can trigger FUD.
Certainly, this case illustrates how governmental and industrial stakeholders in China are not seeking a separate Internet infrastructure and governance system. On the contrary, they engage in the existing governance bodies and reposition themselves vis-à-vis reactions from other sectors of the global information technology industry. While risks of Internet fragmentation from China potentially remain, actual policy moves from China suggest otherwise.
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About the Author
Riccardo Nanni is researcher in data governance at Fondazione Bruno Kessler in Trento, Italy. He holds a PhD in International Relations with a thesis on the influence of Chinese stakeholders in Internet governance and is active in the Internet Governance Forum and the Global Internet Governance Academic Network.