Fragmenting network protocols – China and the end of the web as we know it
In the last of a series of articles about China’s role in shaping the future of the internet, Antonia Hmaidi and Kai von Carnap say Europe needs to stop IPv6+ becoming a standard.
China is rolling out a new internet protocol (IP) that threatens the fair and equal treatment of traffic on the internet, also known as net neutrality. IPv6+ is a routing system for internet data that allows senders to specify to the network provider the type of content in a data packet and the route it should take. By contrast, the current and future globally-accepted IP standards, IPv4 and IPv6, deliberately abstain from providing information beyond the IP-addresses of senders and receivers in order to avoid some users being favored – or discriminated against.
The new standard has obvious appeal for authoritarian regimes looking to control their citizens – and for network providers. Many telecommunications companies around the world have shown interest in treating different services, content and users in different ways to make data-heavy users like streaming services pay more for network usage. The European Commission is currently considering the so-called fair-share proposal, a controversial initiative by European telecoms groups to make commercial users pay more for heavy network traffic.
To do this, the fair-share proposal would also have to identify types of data being routed through the internet. The European initiative and IPv6+ have distinct overlapping interests when it comes to making web data more transparent and treating different traffic type differently. As Euractiv reports, Nokia and CISCO have already picked up some of “core features” familiar from IPv6+ that would allow “segmented routing”. It divides a data packet’s path into distinct stretches, so giving network providers more control of data traffic.
Beijing is keen to present IPv6+ purely as cutting-edge internet innovation. The standard is a technical solution for the era of internet-connected machines. By favoring some types of traffic, for example, China’s network can be built more easily and cheaply. But IPv6+ and its forerunner New IP are part of an explicitly political strategy formulated in 2017 by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) – to push homegrown networking technology to end dependency on the West and break away from global digital capitalism.
Beijing wants to make IPv6+ the standard in some parts of the world
The three-step plan by the MIIT entered its final stage in 2023, with the industry, led by Huawei, slated to focus on expanding “application-aware networking” to “provide targeted and accurate services” – to the benefit of interested network providers and governments and to the harm of net neutrality. Having failed in 2019 and 2020 to persuade other governments in the UN’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to make New IP a standard, China is now offering IPv6+ at home and abroad, seemingly intent on creating facts on the ground.
Domestically, the Chinese government is looking to launch 90 IPv6+ pilot projects this year, adding to the 84 IPv6+ networks, including a communications network for the 2022 Winter Olympics and high-precision medical robots in a Shanghai Hospital, which Huawei says were up and running in 2021. Beyond China’s borders, subsidized technology and China’s state-private nexus – Huawei’s willingness to provide technology and Beijing’s ability to provide financing at attractive rates – is helping to establish IPv6+ even without the ITU’s approval.
One focus of the international marketing campaign are African countries. Here, representatives market NewIP and IPv6+ as a “powerful assistant for digital transformation in Africa.” Rollouts of IPv6+ are planned in Rwanda, Uganda, and South Africa, according to Shucheng Liu, a Huawei official responsible for the development of the IP industry. Another company official recently said that 13 IPv6+ networks had already been rolled out in the Middle East/Africa, four in the Asia-Pacific region – and five even in Europe and the US.
Brussels has started to react in Europe and must now do so overseas
Europe is waking up to the challenge. The European Commission in late 2022 discontinued a controversial working group under the non-profit European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI). The working group, established in 2021 under the leadership of Shucheng Liu and other Huawei representatives, was accused of overstepping its purely research-focused mandate. Kevin Hu, former Huawei Germany CEO, wrote in Chinese state media that the group had been set up specifically for members to “jointly promote the development of IPv6+”.
Having taken an important step to ensure a fair internet in Europe, the EU should now counter China’s global promotion of IPv6+. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in 2021 pledged the EU will invest 300 billion Euros as part of its Global Gateway initiative, at least in part to counter China’s Digital Silk Road of international digital infrastructure projects. An integral part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), one of its goals is to expand China’s influence in the global digital economy through technology exports to other countries.
If the EU really wants Global Gateway to provide a “positive, values-based offer of cooperation to our neighborhood and global partners”, it needs to protect net neutrality and insist on IP protocols that maintain free and fair data flows. Europe has many things to offer potential global partners, chief among them good networking equipment and financial prowess. By partnering with European IP companies and offering integrated solutions that could be built quickly, Europe could use Global Gateway to protect net neutrality around the world.
This analysis is one output of a larger project on China's role in shaping the future internet that was kindly supported by the German Foreign Ministry.