What an Internet Designed for Surveillance and Censorship Could Look Like

A proposed internet standard called New IP gives an idea of how a radically different protocol would govern the web.

A technological eye spreads its tentacles throughout an abstract digital landscape, invading data and communications.
Ana Kova

The internet is complicated. This global network of networks consists of connections between undersea cables, data centers, wireless transmissions, and wires linking homes, offices, schools, research labs, and other locations and devices throughout the world. A dizzying array of standards with puzzling acronyms like DHCP, UDP, and TLS are necessary for an ever-growing number of smartphones, laptops, cable modems, routers, and servers to communicate with each other. The systems enabling these communications are called protocols.

Beneath all of this complexity is a beautifully simple standard called the Internet Protocol, or IP, which assigns an IP address to every device that connects to the network. This core protocol provides the information necessary to route a packet of data from a smartphone in Singapore to a desktop in Des Moines with no central government entity or company managing the entire tangle of cables, carriers, and gadgets that make up the internet. This lack of a central authority is a defining quality of the worldwide network, enabling pseudonymity and freedom of expression. But from almost the beginning, governments and the private sector alike have floated ideas to add more controls to the Internet Protocol.

Now a group of Chinese companies led by the telecommunications giant Huawei is exploring a new internet standard called “New IP,” which they presented last year to the UN’s telecom arbiter, the International Telecommunication Union. News of the meeting was first reported by the Financial Times in March.

While light on technical specifics, the proposed core protocol would ostensibly support more efficient network management to meet growing digital demands — but it also ominously calls for new security and “trustworthiness” features that would make it easier for governments to exert control over the network. Such changes could bake censorship and surveillance into the foundation of the internet.

Concerns over the idea are amplified by Huawei’s reported ties to the Chinese government, which has famously erected a “Great Firewall” of policies and technologies that enable it to tightly regulate domestic network activity. But China is hardly alone in trying to exert more control over how its citizens use the internet. In August, Belarus joined a growing list of countries, including India, Pakistan, Iraq, and Iran, that have blocked access to large swaths of the internet during widespread protests. Turkey recently passed a law that empowers its government to block or remove content on platforms like Facebook and YouTube, and requires that data be hosted locally. Nations like Russia and Saudi Arabia have also expressed support for measures that would give them greater influence over networks.

The west is no exception. Since 2013, UK law has required internet service providers to filter their customers’ access to pornographic websites, alleged copyright-infringing sites, and a host of other web pages by default unless the customers opt out. Amid reports of overblocking, a 2019 study by Top10VPN and Open Rights Group found “that hundreds of charity, school and social support websites across the nation are among thousands of sites wrongfully blocked by overzealous content filters.” Also in 2013, Edward Snowden revealed the extent of US intelligence surveillance of the internet. More recently, the Trump administration outlined a “Clean Networks” initiative to block Chinese apps and telecommunications companies from US networks. It seems as though Huawei’s New IP idea, if ever adopted, could actually help implement such a plan.

The most problematic and dangerous part of the proposal is not the technology, but the fundamental beliefs behind it, which represent a departure from the internet’s fundamental values of openness, transparency, and putting the end user in control.

Some experts have downplayed the significance of Huawei’s project, which is still far from being adopted by any standards body. “A new standard would have to be carefully defined, agreed on, implemented and then adopted by a critical mass of the world’s networks and systems if it were to become dominant,” Milton Mueller, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology School of Public Policy, wrote in a blog post about New IP. “As we have pointed out in other research, the global compatibility created by universal use of TCP/IP and [other related standards] are practically impossible to abandon without unacceptable sacrifices in compatibility.”

Huawei didn’t respond to our request for comment. But though the company’s proposal may be vague, it echoes various ideas that make it possible to sketch a vision of what an internet governed by a radically (or even subtly) different set of protocols would look like.

How IP encourages an open internet

The Internet Protocol doesn’t actually specify much on its own. It’s basically a standard that routes packets of data from one point to another. IP only requires that every packet of data include two pieces of information in plain, unencrypted text: the packet’s destination and where it’s coming from.

Actually delivering that data requires another protocol, which is why IP is typically paired with a “transport protocol” like TCP, or more recently UDP. Various specialized protocols ride atop these fundamental protocols to handle things like delivering email, encrypting credit card information, or loading webpages.

The internet’s openness stems in part from the fact that IP is so simple — it doesn’t enforce any particular paradigm. Instead, people can build standards and technologies on it that meet their needs. The traditional email system is decentralized, enabling someone who uses Gmail to send an email to someone who uses their company’s Microsoft Exchange server. Facebook Messenger, on the other hand, is centralized in that you can only send and receive messages to and from other Facebook users. Both systems work on the internet because the underlying protocols don’t force users to build applications in a particular way.

This modular approach allows new standards to emerge or be discarded as necessary. Competing email or instant messaging protocols can be introduced and adopted while the underlying protocols stay the same. Some succeed, like the web protocol HTTP. Others, like the pre-web protocol Gopher, fade away.

Though IP has only basic requirements that govern packets of data, a new protocol could potentially add a virtual watermark with the identification number of the device it was sent from. Doing so would make it possible to trace the source of any data posted to the internet.

One of the primary concerns over ideas like New IP is that adding more functionality to the Internet Protocol would shift governance of the internet from a decentralized, bottom-up system composed of a variety of stakeholders to a top-down system imposed by governments and corporations.

“The most problematic and dangerous part of the proposal is not the technology, but the fundamental beliefs behind it, which represent a departure from the Internet’s fundamental values of openness, transparency, and putting the end user in control,” wrote Marco Hogewoning, acting manager of public policy and internet governance at the European internet registry RIPE NCC. “The current Internet was not so much designed as grown over time and often only documented ex post.”

But that’s not to say the technology itself couldn’t change the nature of the internet.

How New IP could undermine the open internet

One of the most common complaints about the Internet Protocol is that it doesn’t have much, if any, security baked into it. Authentication and encryption are left to higher level protocols and individual applications. Governments, law enforcement, and various corporate interest groups long for a way to track who is actually doing what online.

IP addresses can be useful in identifying who sent a particular message, or at least what device it was sent from, but it’s not a surefire way to identify internet users. IP addresses can be changed or transferred, for example, or they can be “spoofed,” which is a bit like making a different number show up on someone’s caller ID when you call them. Huawei pointedly noted spoofing in an explanatory statement about New IP.

Danny O’Brien, director of strategy at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says that one way that Huawei (or anyone else for that matter) might try to bake authentication more deeply into the internet would be to add a new, mandatory device identification system to the Internet Protocol. For this to work, every internet-capable device would need to have an unchangeable identification number “burned in.” That identification number would then be associated with a specific person, similarly to how a car’s VIN number is registered to you when you buy it.

Though IP has only basic requirements that govern packets of data, a new protocol could potentially add a virtual watermark with the identification number of the device it was sent from. Doing so would make it possible to trace the source of any data posted to the internet, from text posted to a forum to images and video published through a file-sharing network.

Assuming that this is technically feasible, it would change the anonymous and pseudonymous nature of today’s internet. There are clear law enforcement and counter-terror benefits to such a scheme. Child sexual abuse material and other criminal content could more easily be traced. It would be harder for bots run by foreign governments to meddle in elections.

But the end of internet anonymity would also make it far easier for governments to crack down on dissidents and free expression. It’s already difficult for whistleblowers to maintain anonymity, but if the documents they leak or the internet connections they use to do so can be easily traced to them, it could become practically impossible.

Another of Huawei’s proposed additions to New IP that worries critics is “deterministic networking.” There’s nothing inherently sinister about deterministic networking; several different networking standards are considering supporting it. The basic idea is to improve performance and reduce latency for advanced applications like virtual reality, telemedicine, and autonomous vehicles. It does so by specifying routes for data transmission from those applications with guaranteed bandwidth.

That said, an Internet Society paper on New IP notes that most deterministic networking proposals are focused on applying the idea within lower-level networks — a hospital’s own network, say, or even a wireless carrier’s network — not at the level of the entire internet. Internet Society CEO Andrew Sullivan worries that the capability to route traffic at the application level could be abused by governments or carriers to block certain applications altogether.

Meanwhile, Hogewoning frets that these discussions around the Internet’s fundamental architecture will be used to draw national borders around the internet, blocking traffic from entering or exiting particular countries and effectively splintering the web. China, Russia, and other nations already substantially block outside websites and applications, and it’s not hard to imagine the Trump administration wanting a similar capability.

What’s next for New IP?

Huawei and its partners are reportedly planning to discuss the New IP standard at an important ITU telecommunication conference scheduled for February in India. Huawei has also said that it will be able to begin testing parts of the new system in 2021. But even if Huawei, or another stakeholder, really wanted to change the internet in this way, it would be difficult to do so.

An ITU spokesperson noted that the organization’s members haven’t reached the consensus required to actually launch work on the idea. That’s not surprising. The Internet Society paper argues that the proposal is redundant — many of the issues that Huawei has raised in its documentation are being addressed within other standards — as well as potentially counterproductive. For example, Huawei warns that the internet is splitting into “ManyNets” that could become incapable of communicating with each other owing to incompatible mechanisms. But the world already has the Internet Protocol as a common language, and much of it is still in the process of adopting IP’s latest iteration, IPv6. Introducing yet another core protocol would likely make the possibility of the internet splintering worse, as some networks would support New IP while others would continue supporting other versions of IP.

Still, it’s not an impossible scenario. “Trying to push something through a standards body that someone doesn’t want to see happen is like trying to push a piece of string,” says O’Brien. “But sometimes there’s a shift at these standards bodies.” He noted that the World Wide Web Consortium’s controversial decision to publish a digital rights management standard for web video surprised many observers.

Sullivan suggests that if any standards body were receptive to New IP or something similar, it would be the ITU, whose decision-makers come primarily from governments. Because the ITU has the ability to enforce policy through international treaties, it could push internet service providers around the world to actually adopt a novel core protocol like New IP, which is something other standards bodies wouldn’t be able to do as easily.

Nevertheless, even if every established standards body in the world rejected New IP, Huawei could theoretically publish and adopt a new standard on its own. If enough of the world’s large countries were to mandate its use, networks in many other countries might eventually decide to adopt the protocol as well to ensure compatibility with networks in the world’s largest markets.

The best way to fight against this sort of change is to coordinate with organizations like Access Now and the EFF and petition your government representatives about the importance of protecting the principle of an open internet — not just through your country’s involvement in the ITU, but through its internet policy in general. The Internet Protocol, after all, is just a base layer. Censorship and surveillance can already be built atop that protocol, as we’ve seen around the world already.

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A technological eye spreads its tentacles throughout an abstract digital landscape, invading data and communications.

Artwork By

Ana Kova

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