By Doug Kelly, CEO, American Edge Project
China is waging a sustained campaign to control the future of the global internet. The Communist country is seeking to replace today’s open, accessible, and decentralized internet with a closed, centralized, and censoring version that can be controlled by their government.
China’s digital subversion efforts are focused on two fronts: the metaverse and the overall internet.
For the metaverse – the virtual reality space where an estimated one billion users will interact by 2031 – China is proposing a “Digital Identity System” that would require users across the globe to have a unique ID that is linked to their real-world identity. This ID would include personal data such as their occupation and other attributes. The data would be permanently stored and shared with law enforcement authorities to “keep the order and safety of the virtual world.”
This proposal, drafted by the state-owned telecom operator China Mobile, is a clear attempt by Beijing to extend China’s surveillance state model into the fledgling metaverse. China’s plan would allow governments to track and monitor users, censor content, and punish dissent, similar to how China uses its current “social credit system” to blacklist individual from critical services – like applying for loans, using the internet, purchasing plane/train tickets, and obtaining a business license – for what authorities deem bad behavior.
China’s metaverse plan is scheduled to receive a vote this October by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a United Nations agency that sets global standards for telecommunications.
But it’s not just the metaverse. Since 2019, China has used its influence at the ITU to promote its own vision of the internet. Called the “New IP”, China’s internet standards plan would allow a centralized authority to track browsing history, online habits, and decide who can access the internet, thereby converting the New IP into an instrument for social control, state surveillance, and enabling far-reaching censorship and propaganda.
As expected, a rouges’ gallery of actors is supporting China’s efforts: Iran, Russia, and Saudi Arabia all back the proposed IP protocol. And international adoption efforts are led by Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant banned in more than a dozen countries for allegations of digital spying.
China’s plan is a threat to the free and open internet, which allows people across the world to connect and communicate freely, share ideas, and participate in commerce. The current internet is a powerful force for good in the world, and it has helped to spread democracy and freedom.
Accordingly, the impact of global standards – and who influences them – matters greatly. From a values perspective, technology standards shape the way we live, work, and communicate, so they must be developed in a way that protects privacy, security, and freedom of expression. Similarly, from a commerce perspective, standards determine how products and systems work together, which can provide a competitive advantage to a country’s businesses, making it easier for them to sell their products and services in global markets.
To resist China’s efforts to impose its own vision of the internet on the globe, the U.S. and its Western allies must do three things. First, rather than cutting China out of the standard-making process, democracies must band together to promote open internet standards and build a global consensus for a free and open internet.
Second, as the Atlantic Council‘s in-depth report on global technology standards recommended, America must provide expanded support for our domestic technology industry to ensure that new technologies emerging from the United States are of the highest quality, since well-engineered products are the most likely to be selected for global use.
Thirdly, we must avoid passing extreme regulations that handcuff our innovators and weaken our ability to compete. Overly restrictive policies like the European Union’s Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act unfairly target U.S. technology leaders while benefiting China’s tech industry. Similarly, proposals in the U.S. for antitrust reform and tough merger restrictions can do lasting damage to America’s innovation ecosystems.
The public strongly supports this three-pronged approach. In a recent survey of U.S. and EU voters conducted by American Edge, 80 percent of U.S. and EU voters agreed that we must unite against increased technology threats from China and Russia, and voters on both sides of the Atlantic oppose heavily regulating their own technology sectors, hurting their ability to compete with China’s technology sector (87% in U.S., 78% in Europe).
Just as control of the seas once determined global power, in today’s internet age, the country that controls the digital rules, rules the digital world. If China succeeds in controlling the internet, it will have a profound and irreversible impact on the world, turning the internet into a tool for censorship and surveillance, rather than a conduit for free expression and democracy.
We cannot allow this to happen. We must act now to defend the open internet.