The genius of the internet has always been its openness: anyone with a smartphone or a laptop can take part in a worldwide conversation. For authoritarian regimes, however, that very openness is instead a problem to be solved. China’s plan could lock down the internet forever.
At the heart of the internet is a communications protocol called TCP/IP. The creators of TCP/IP in the 1970s could never have imagined that it would someday form the backbone for nearly all commerce and social discourse by the year 2020. That backbone is beginning to show its age as millions of new smartphones and smart devices are added to the network every year. Industry giants are each offering their own ideas on creating a new structure for the world wide web.
Chinese state-owned technology firm Huawei recently unveiled their own proposal to replace TCP/IP. Called New IP, this standard is designed to make communication more efficient, allowing for faster internet connections for smartphones and web-connected devices such as light bulbs and self-driving cars.
But the new proposal has a darker side.
The first red flag in the New IP proposal is a built-in kill switch that can be used to cut off websites or users that are engaging in bad behavior.
While that might sound like good news in a world of spammers, scammers, and hackers, authoritarian regimes such as China would doubtlessly use it to shut down political dissidents, Hong Kong democracy protestors, or even foreign activists that the Chinese Communist Party consider a threat to their total control of information.
The openness of the internet is in large part due to its decentralized nature. Today, no one person or group can totally control what you see or do not see on the web.
On the other hand, China has worked hard to control the internet within their borders.
They created the so-called “Great Firewall of China,” a system of legal and technological barriers within their borders that prevents citizens from learning anything not approved by the CCP.
For example, a normal image search for “Tiananmen Square” returns the famous picture of a man defiantly facing down a line of tanks as pro-democracy protests were brutally crushed by the Chinese communist regime.
The same search performed on Chinese-owned search engine Baidu, however, returns pictures of the beautiful architecture of the Square, with no tanks or dissidents to be found.
New IP would build a Great Firewall into the very structure of the internet itself.
Another troubling aspect of New IP is its built-in authentication system.
The internet up until now has allowed for tremendous anonymity and privacy. An activist or dissident can put up a website or comment on social media without revealing their true name or location. Anonymity and privacy have always been important for democracy – recall that Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay originally published the Federalist Papers under a pseudonym.
Totalitarian regimes, however, have long fought against this kind of safety for dissidents.
Five years ago, China began forcing internet users within their country to register their real names before being allowed to use social media. China also has a pervasive “social credit score” system that can punish people who engage in politically incorrect discourse by barring them from travel or conducting business.
While most Americans rightly recoil at these examples of communist tyranny, some in the west think that China is leading the way.
Last month, the Atlantic magazine published a piece urging America to adopt the worst of Chinese-style censorship of the internet. Law professors Jack Goldsmith and Andrew Keane Woods wrote, “In the great debate of the past two decades about freedom versus control of the network, China was largely right and the United States was largely wrong. Significant monitoring and speech control are inevitable components of a mature and flourishing internet, and governments must play a large role in these practices to ensure that the internet is compatible with a society’s norms and values.”
If the world adopts the new internet backbone proposed by Huawei, Chinese-style censorship will inevitably spread through the west. American companies such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter have already censored dissenting voices.
Web hosts and payment processors have blacklisted businesses such as gun sellers, all but banning them from the internet. Thus far, the nature of the internet has prevented governments from simply turning off unapproved voices, but New IP could change that.
Huawei – the CCP-linked telecommunications giant – denies there is anything nefarious about the New IP proposal.
According CEO Eric Xu, “…for many years, IP technology has not kept up with the needs of the industrial Internet, particularly in terms of low latency and security… These activities are not as complicated or politically driven as some people think, and the technical topic being researched should not be politicized.”
But only fools and paid propagandists take the Chinese communist regime at their word.
While Huawei claims to be independent, many industry experts believe the company is inextricably linked to the Chinese Communist Party. Timothy Heath, a security analyst with the RAND Corporation, explained: “the Chinese state has the authority to demand tech companies like Huawei turn over useful information or provide access to the communications and technologies owned and sold by Huawei.”
The CCP has demonstrated their desire and willingness to censor the web for their own citizens as well as use it as a weapon against other nations. Allowing China to build the next generation of the internet is a dangerous proposition.