Digital standards are key for protecting democracy

Developing digital standards is a complex, technical area of governance, but geopolitical issues make it a crucial battleground for fighting authoritarianism.

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Digital technical standards are – and have always been – pervasive. They shape the way societies engage with everyday technologies, from internet connectivity to 5G. In many ways, they reflect the values and visions of the engineers that develop them.

Until recently, the development of digital technical standards has been a relatively apolitical, technical policy area, deliberated in closed conference rooms without generating much external interest. However, in the past few months, the spectre of standards proposals like China’s ‘new IP’ – a closed, centrally-controlled system of national internet – have made standards a hot topic.

Around the world, there is increasing recognition of the importance of standards in shaping technology – and the strategic advantage possessed by the actors who shape them. But many proposals raise concerns due to their disruptive impact on the global internet and telecoms. They have a potential to set concerning precedents for emerging technologies, too.

Proposals for a decentralized internet infrastructure threaten global ICT interoperability and have serious consequences for human rights

To protect open, democratic societies from the consequences of digital authoritarian dominance and fragmenting the global digital ecosystem, G7 states and their allies recently committed to incentivising and investing in multi-stakeholderism at both national and international levels, boosting hopes that multi-stakeholder approaches (engaging non-state stakeholders like the private sector, academia, civil society and technical experts) may generate the alliances and fresh solutions needed to bolster resilient, democratic standards and societies alike.

The G7 framework – informed by a side-event convened by Chatham House and the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) – recognizes a ‘trusted, values-driven digital ecosystem’ as being inseparable from standards-setting, and opposes ‘government-imposed approaches’ which seek to reshape standards that undermine democratic values.

The symbolic importance of this declaration’s commitment to multi-stakeholderism (as opposed to multilateralism – favoured by countries like Russia, China and Iran – which excludes non-state stakeholders) cannot be overstated. It is a firm assertion first, that standards development is a geopolitical issue and second, that it should be undertaken and managed through multi-stakeholder approaches.

Geopolitical tensions in digital technical standards

And it could not have come at a better time. China has proposed a ‘new IP’ within key standards development organizations (SDOs) such as the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), dubbed by one expert as ‘the most important UN agency you have never heard of’.

Proposals for a decentralized internet infrastructure threaten global ICT interoperability and have serious consequences for human rights: China’s proposals may facilitate the implementation of its social credit scheme. And since the launch of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and 2035 Standards Strategy, Chinese proposals to reshape standards have gained momentum, as well as some support from its trusted trade partners.

To complicate matters further, ITU secretary general Zhao Houlin is known to favour China-backed proposals and, with US candidate Doreen Bogdan-Martin likely pitted against Russia’s Rashid Ismailov in the ITU 2022 plenipotentiary, stakes have never been higher. Ismailov is a former Huawei executive and, for Russia, the ITU presidency offers a unique opportunity to champion its vision for closed, nationally-controlled internet; for example, by supplanting ICANN, the current group coordinating internet addresses.

But these threats run deeper than just Russia and China. Globally, there are a diversity of regimes with long-term, vested interests in shaping standards for their own benefit, willing to throw their weight behind China’s proposals. Like-minded democracies must urgently rethink their approach to standards – and a multi-stakeholder strategy could offer a solution.

What more stakeholders bring to the table

To assist G7 partners in their preparation for the Ministerial Declaration, experts at the Chatham House-DCMS workshop (held on 3 March 2021) recognized that multi-stakeholderism encourages coalition-building, nurtures local and cross-border innovation, and bolsters shared normative commitments to safeguarding the transparency, openness and interoperability of ICTs.

For years, industry has dominated efforts to shape digital technical standards, with everyday tech items and their standards, such as USB specifications, developed by coalitions of ICT companies. But new challenges demand new approaches. ICT giants offer technical expertise and digital leadership experience, but it is time to broaden the field.

Globally, there are a diversity of regimes with long-term, vested interests in shaping standards for their own benefit, willing to throw their weight behind China’s proposals

Governments have always played a role in standards development, with the power to identify policy issues, facilitate partnerships, and provide financial incentives, but the G7 declaration signals a reimagining of government responsibilities vis-à-vis industry’s leadership. At a national level, governments can lead strategic coordination and invest in capacity-building for non-state actors, while internationally, governments can encourage coalitions between stakeholders.

The G7’s declarations on ICTs are steps in the right direction, as are national standards strategies such as Germany’s Standardisation Roadmap on AI, and the UK’s focus on standards in the Integrated Review. But non-state actors also have a legitimate, urgent role to play. In the past, knowledge gaps, financial barriers, and a lack of incentives have prevented sustained engagement from civil society and academia in SDOs.

These actors bring much to the table, such as technical expertise, existing networks, and under-represented voices, such as young adults and children. Plus, they already raise awareness about the importance of certain standards, and serve as barometers for their societal impact.

It may be easy to forget that the SDOs themselves are also stakeholders, setting the tone for inclusion, coordination, and engagement, so their leadership and norms matter. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken noted there are ‘relatively few items that are ultimately going to have a greater impact on the lives of people around the world’ than the ITU leadership race.

Why multi-stakeholderism matters

From a technical standpoint, the more perspectives involved in determining technical interoperability, the better – especially with the onset of disruptive technologies such as quantum and AI which are likely to have a wide, societal impact. Building deeper knowledge-sharing networks between academia and SMEs can generate resilient standards that reflect policy principles.

But more importantly, multi-stakeholder approaches build cross-sector and cross-border coalitions rooted in normative commitments to open, democratic societies and enhancing shared prosperity. Meaningful engagement on standards with a variety of stakeholders at national and regional levels is even more urgent for technologies with far-reaching societal impacts – such as smart cities and autonomous vehicles – to avoid societal harms.

By championing open, transparent, consensus-based multi-stakeholderism in standards-setting, states bring home more than just majority votes on key proposals. Changing ICT culture by institutionalizing multi-stakeholderism and diverse representation would generate good practices which can be replicated in areas such as the UN cybercrime treaty deliberations proposed by Russia to supplant existing agreements, and negotiations on responsible state behaviour in cyberspace.

There is a long way to go, as states still need to develop effective outreach mechanisms and invest in coordination at all levels, and there are clear trade-offs between stakeholder inclusion and the efficiency of expert groups.

But faced with some states’ aspirations to shape the internet, telecoms, and emerging technologies, like-minded states interested in protecting open, democratic societies cannot afford to adopt a siloed approach to digital technical standards. Multi-stakeholderism is both urgent and necessary – before it is too late.