The Critical Geopolitics of Standards Setting

Main Image Credit By Amin - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Technical standards are the type of policy issue that have long been critically important, but only rise to prominence in the aftermath of notable breaches or incidents.

However, as technology increasingly becomes the central pillar on which we build our security and interact as a global society, technical standards setting can no longer be allowed to languish towards the bottom of the policy priority list.

The status-quo of a market-led approach of technical standardisation, driven by competition between leading industry actors has resulted in apathy and competition between ‘western’ actors. Historically this system of technical standardisation has effectively fostered technical interoperability and compatibility, needing only the occasional push by legislating bodies.

However, this previously ‘western’ domain is challenged by a Chinese bloc of private industry actors with centrally directed, strategic motivations for their efforts who have managed to leverage the flaws of this system for political and economic advantage.  The market-driven self-regulation model of technical standards has proven itself unsustainable given the geopolitical power achievable through the control of these standards. The marketised approach is easily abusable by a technologically developed nation-state with geopolitical intentions firmly in mind.

Obscurity Through Complexity

Technical standards have the immediate appearance of being both apolitical and ethically neutral. This seems to set them apart from the debate over standards of state behaviour in cyber space concerning espionage and actions below the threshold of armed conflict. Yet, technological standards are unequivocally connected to normative practices of international behaviour and ethics. The extremely complex nature of the standards under consideration in bodies such as the International Organization for Standardization, the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), and the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) obscures the very tangible real-world impact that the standards they set have. The 3GPP is responsible for standards setting for mobile telecommunications. It covers everything from 5G through to autonomous vehicles and the Internet of Things. These are the bodies defining how the modern world is constructed.

On the one hand they appear quite benign, responsible for such banalities as the use of Universal Serial Bus (USB) connectors versus proprietary standards. This hardly seems a matter of national security importance. But the same process is responsible for what ultimately shape the basic operating parameters of facial recognition technology in closed circuit television systems, the level of centralised state control at the technical foundations of the internet, and the protections of personally identifiable data. These generate profound implications for international policy and ethics.

Internal Competition vs Strategic Direction

Technical standards setting processes have, historically, been dominated by private sector actors who have had both the capacity to develop a particular technology to the point of holding a significant market share, and the ability to use that market share to advocate for the standardisation of the technology in line with their own production. The market led approach has continued to be the prevailing model by which American companies have globalised the technical standards behind US dominated technological innovation. This privatised form of self-regulation for technology companies is only partially influenced by the approach taken within the EU where some licensing of standards are controlled by state or EU led institutions.

In contrast to this approach the Chinese model has involved a high level of state-oriented direction, oversight, and direct engagement on the creation and signing off technical standards. Efforts to harmonise and centralise technical standards domestically have become increasingly internationalised as the CCP takes this centralised, strategic approach to technical standards setting bodies such as the ITU, 3GPP, and IEC. Technical standards have also become an increasingly central component of the Digital Silk Road with the openly expressed goal of increasing uptake of Chinese technical standards in partner countries.

The implications of this clash between a system of technical standardisation that is driven by the market versus one driven by an authoritarian government subsidised model are a direct challenge to the development of free, open, and ethical technology. Standardisation mechanisms have become political, or rather there has been a gradual realisation of the political power to be gained from the control of technical standards. While the PRC might have come to this awareness first, the US and Europe have since had a rude awakening about the missed opportunity. The privatised model of technical standards setting favoured by European and US markets relies upon the dynamics of financial competition to regulate behaviour. This is in stark contrast to the statist Chinese model.

In recognising the power this bestows, the CCP and Chinese companies have gotten the jump on global competition. Telecommunications, the backbone of future technologies, has been a prominent target for Chinese companies and for the CCP as it seeks dominate global technical standardisation. One example can be found in the General Assembly of the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), where the vote share for Chinese companies stands in the region of 25%. This group wields their vote in concert when it comes to accepting technical standards crafted by their members or blocking those proposed from outside the bloc.  Meanwhile a third of the remaining votes are held by European companies who continue to compete amongst themselves (similar with American members).

The answer to this is complicated but must focus on disincentivising internal competition over standards between EU and US companies and increase the level of institutional direction and oversight. The market has not delivered a solution to this problem. Further, policymakers and the decision makers in private industry need to be disabused of the notion that technical standards setting is solely and economically motivated pursuit. Technical standards setting is an overlooked but critical source of economic, political, and normative power in an age where technology is central to domestic and international security.

Two key ideas can help address this issue:

Build Expertise Capacity: Expertise needs to be developed within government that can effectively bridge technical and policy communities. Positions should be created, and individuals trained or hired, to act as central points of contact between industry leaders at home and abroad and government. More diplomatic posts should be created to engage with industry.

Increase State and Private Buy-in: Allied states should increase their direct engagement with international technical standards settings bodies in whatever manner is viable. In some settings this could include direct participation, but may also include funding, observer status, or administrative or bureaucratic contributions.

By Dr Alexi Drew, Research Associate, The Policy Institute, King’s College London

Article category: Digital Technology and R&D

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