Putin and Xi’s plot to control the internet will leave the West in the dust

·5 min read
Xi Putin - Sergei Karpukhin/AFP
Xi Putin - Sergei Karpukhin/AFP

When President Xi whispered a few sweet nothings into Vladimir Putin’s ear last week, it was a private exchange that they wanted everyone to hear.

“Change is coming that hasn’t happened in 100 years, and we are driving this change together,” President Xi Jinping told his “warm friend”, the Russian President.

Just as this column predicted one year ago, Putin and Xi have forged a wide ranging global technology pact. The agreement comprehensively yokes the two states together, with internet technology a key area. Explicitly, they vow that “new and responsible national codes of conduct in information cyberspace should be formulated, especially universal international legal instruments”.

They’re also keen to change how the internet works at a technical level, a task China has been undertaking for years.

“China wants to make sure that the digital infrastructure of the future is based on Chinese standards and patents, and on the other side, China wants to make sure that you can use that technology to monitor and control the population in a digital society,” one insider told me.

To understand how they seek to achieve this, it helps to know a little about the unique qualities of the internet: its very peculiar texture, history and governance.

ITU - Pau Barrena/AFP
ITU - Pau Barrena/AFP

Forty years ago, before telecommunications liberalisation, technical networking standards were the domain of the lumbering dinosaurs of the state phone monopolies, and computing giants like IBM. They took an eternity to forge standards for connecting computers together. So long, in fact, that ultimately, nobody wanted to use their work.

By contrast, the internet’s engineers came from a computing background, and improvised. They created the bare minimum for getting networks to talk to other networks. The clue’s in the name – “inter-networking”. Rough and ready it may be, but it worked.

This left us with two distinct legacies. One is that the stack of “protocols” – the technical agreements that networks need to cooperate – is a mess. Another legacy is that the governance frameworks lent themselves to capture by a powerful state. Enter China.

There are two forums that decide the internet’s technical standards, and both have either been captured, or faced a constant battle against infiltration. One is the International Telecommunications Union, founded a month after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. The other is an engineer-led forum called the Internet Engineering Task Force, or IETF.

“The ITU is a United Nations organisation, and behaves exactly as you would expect a UN organisation to behave,” a participant told me. Junkets are the order of the day – creating an agreeable lifestyle marred only by the junketeers ever having to decide anything.

The ITU elected its first Chinese Secretary General in 2014, and as researcher Emily Taylor, formerly of the Chatham House think tank found, by April 2021 China held over 30pc of chairman and vice-chairman positions at the ITU, compared to 7.6pc for the United States, an 6.1pc for the United Kingdom. So far, so familiar: the infiltration here mirrors China’s long march through other UN agencies, such as the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Jeremy Fleming - Yui Mok/PA
Jeremy Fleming - Yui Mok/PA

The other arena in which the internet’s technical standards are thrashed out is the IETF, the Internet Engineering Task Force, where individual engineers and representatives (rather than states) meet. Here, Taylor’s research found that many of the individuals represented now have a Chinese state connection, either through sponsorship, or via firms such as Huawei. They can blitz a working group with proposals – and some slip through.

Up for grabs is the non-aligned world. Although China and Russia have become Western pariahs, and their technology less competitive because of sanctions, to many potential buyers this doesn’t matter so much. China’s networking equipment is considered good enough for the buyers in the non-aligned world. Which is larger than we suppose: over 40 nations abstained from the UN resolution to condemn the Ukraine invasion a year ago, including Pakistan and India, South Africa and much of the African continent.

Authoritarian leaders also like what they see in China’s internet proposals, such as “New IP”. This was a package that overhauled the basic internet protocols – in itself, much needed – that made it easier to control and censor networks. China merely needs to give away the networking gear from Huawei and ZTE at a low cost, and those standards will become entrenched.

While New IP was rebuffed, “it won’t be the end of the story,” warned GCHQ director Jeremy Fleming in his Royal United Services Institute annual security lecture last October. It keeps returning, in disguise. Taylor now has established a new Internet Standards Observatory to shine a light on the infiltration.

But greater scrutiny by itself won’t be enough, as Fleming has acknowledged. The West not only needs to counter China’s Belt and Road initiative, but drop the “finger wagging human rights lectures” too, as Taylor puts it. “The non-aligned countries have to make pragmatic decisions. They ask: ‘Who’s going to build my stuff out?’”

We also need to acknowledge the creaky internet infrastructure that needs replacing, and offer our upgrade to the developing world – rather than waiting for China to make all the running.

The extent of the Chinese challenge is only just dawning on a complacent and self-satisfied foreign policy establishment. Failing to address the internet’s governance and technical issues is the leaky roof we’ve never got round to fixing – and now it’s starting to pour.