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Setting ‘simple’ standards is critical diplomacy

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China and Huawei have proposed a “redesign” of the internet to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the international body that oversees global communications, according to a recent Financial Times report. Ostensibly, the change better incorporates new technologies enabled by 5G capabilities. Systems engineers caution, however, that the proposal would transform the internet from the current free and open architecture to one more capable of being controlled by governments.

The “New IP” proposal is the most recent offensive in the battle over the evolution of the architecture of the internet. While its outcome may determine global leadership in high technologies, I want to focus here on how this struggle is playing out, rather than the particulars of the Chinese white paper.

The proposal is an attempt at “standard setting,” a little understood and even less appreciated dimension of international engagement. Neglect is dangerous as standards can shape — if not predetermine — critical outcomes. Japan, like other countries, must pay more attention to international standard setting to protect itself in a world of greater integration and accelerating technological change.

Standard setting is largely ignored, even though it has been a critical enabler of economic growth and globalization. Standard gauges allowed railroads to cross national borders; standardized plugs were essential for electric devices to be portable; standard ports were required if all the devices of the digital world were to be interconnected. The Windows operating system is the standard for most business computing systems, providing a uniform foundation for applications. Standards are, writes Hilary McGeachy a fellow at the U.S. Studies Center in Sydney, “the connective tissue between technology and the market, providing specifications for products, services and systems.”

Or, as the ITU explained somewhat more drily, they “establish norms and requirements for technical systems, specifying standard engineering criteria, methodologies or processes.” Standards allow connectivity in everything from physical trade to the bits and bytes of internet protocols. And they matter. Management guru W. Edwards Deming once noted, “If you control an industry’s standards, you control that industry lock, stock........

© The Japan Times