China, Huawei propose internet protocol with a built-in killswitch

Jon Fingas
Associate Editor
Mateusz Slodkowski/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

China, Huawei and Chinese carriers want to redesign a key aspect of the internet -- and while there may be some upsides, their ideas have raised some alarm bells. The Financial Times understands that the group has proposed a new internet protocol at the ITU, New IP, that theoretically offers more efficient addressing and network management than the existing TCP/IP standard but also appears to have hooks that allow authoritarian regimes to censor and surveil their residents. Most notably, there would be a "shut up command" that would let a central part of the network cut off data going to or from an address. As you might guess, that could be handy if China wanted to silence an activist without resorting to extra tools.

There are also concerns that New IP would require authentication and authorization of not just new internet addresses, but also the humans involved and the data packets being sent. China has long called for linking real names to internet users, and this potentially links people to the very internet connection itself.

New IP should be ready for testing by early 2021.

A Huawei spokesperson characterized New IP as being designed solely to handle the technical demands of a changing digital landscape and not to exert control. In its presentations, Huawei has characterized the update as vital to powering "holo-sense teleportation" and self-driving cars. The representative added that the technology was "open to scientists and engineers worldwide."

However, the statements appear to be at odds with the nature of the design and those who support it. Openness doesn't change that New IP would still give governments more control over their portions of the internet. And when the Chinese government has a hand in the standard as well as the support of similarly authoritarian nations like Russia, that's bound to raise concerns.

There's no guarantee that the ITU will accept New IP as a standard, let alone that enough countries will adopt the technology to make it viable. Even so, its existence isn't likely to reassure civil liberties advocates who see TCP/IP's "dumb" nature as an advantage that helps preserve freedom of expression and a basic level of anonymity.