Centre for Internet & Society

Researchers at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute have partnered with the Centre for Internet and Society (Bengaluru) to produce a ‘techplomacy guide’ on negotiating AI standards for stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific.

This is a modified version of the post that appeared in The Strategist

By Arindrajit Basu with inputs from  and review by Amrita Sengupta and Isha Suri

Later this month, UN member states elected  American candidate Doreen Bogdan-Martin "the most important election you have never heard off" to elect the next secretary-general of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). While this technical body's work may be esoteric, the election was  fiercely contested with  Russian candidate (and former Huawei executive; aptly reflecting the geopolitical competition that is underway in determining the “future of the internet” through the technical standards that underpin it. The  “Internet Protocol” (IP) that is the set of rules governing the communication and exchange of data over the internet itself is being subjected to political contestation between a Sino-Russian vision that would see the standard give way to greater government control and a US vision ostensibly rooted in more inclusive multi-stakeholder participation.

As critical and emerging technologies take the geopolitical centre-stage, the global tug of war over the development, utilisation, and deployment  is playing out most ferociously at standard-setting organisations, an arms’ length away from the media limelight. Powerful state and non-state actors alike are already seeking to shape standards in ways that suit their economic, political, and normative priorities. It is time for emerging economies, middle powers and a wider array of private actors and members from the civil society to play a more meaningful and tangible role in the process.

What are standards and why do they matter

Simply put, standards are blueprints or protocols with requirements which ‘standardise’ products and related processes around the world, thus ensuring that they are interoperable, safe and sustainable. For example, USB, WiFi or a QWERTY keyboard can be used around the world because they are built on technical standards that enable equipment produced adopting these standards to be used around the world.Standards are negotiated both domestically-at domestic standard-setting bodies such as the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) or Standards Australia (SA) or global standard-development organisations such as the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) or the International Standardisation Organisation (ISO). While standards are not legally binding  unless they are explicitly imposed as requirements in a legislation, they have immense coercive value. Not adhering to recognised standards means that certain products may not reach markets as they are not compatible with consumer requirements or cannot claim to meet health or safety expectations. The harmonisation of internationally recognised standards serves as  the bedrock for global trade and commerce. Complying with a global standard is particularly critical because of its applicability across several markets. Further, international trade law proclaims that World Trade Organisation (WTO) members can impose trade restrictive domestic measures only on the basis of published or soon to be published international standards.(Article 2.4 of the Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement)

Shaping global standards is of immense geopolitical and economic value to states and the private sector alike. States that are able to ‘export’ their domestic technological standards internationally enable their companies to reap a significant economic advantage because it is cheaper for them to adopt global standards. Further, companies draw huge revenue by holding patents to technologies that are essential to comply with a certain standard popularly known as Standard Essential Patents or SEPs and licensing them to other players who want to enter the market. For context, IPlytics estimated that cumulative global royalty income from licensing SEPs was USD 20 billion in 2020, anticipated to increase significantly in the coming years due to massive technological upgradation currently underway.

China’s push for dominance to influence the 5G standard at the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) illustrates how prioritising standards-setting both through domestic industrial policy and foreign policy could provide rich economic and geopolitical dividends. After failing to meaningfully influence the setting of the 3G and 4G standards,the Chinese government commenced a national effort that sought to harmonise domestic standards, improve government coordination of standard-setting efforts, and obtain a first movers advantage over other nations developing their own domestic 5G standards. This was combined with a diplomatic push that saw vigorous private sector participation (Huawei put in 20 5G related proposals whereas Ericsson and Nokia put in just 16 and 10 respectively);

packing key leadership positions in Working Groups with representatives from Chinese companies and institutions; and ensuring that all Chinese participants vote in unison for any proposal. It is no surprise therefore that Chinese companies now lead the way on 5G with Huawei owning the most number of 5G patents and has finalised more 5G contracts than any other company despite restrictions placed on Huawei’s gear by some countries. As detailed in its “Make in China”strategy, China will now activelyapply its winning strategy to other standard-setting avenues as well

Standards for Artificial Intelligence

A  number of institutions, including private actors such as Huawei and Cloud Walk have contributed to China’s 2018 AI standardisation white paper that was revised and updated in 2021.The white paper maps the work of SDOs in the field of AI standards and outlines a number of recommendations on how Chinese actors can use global SDOs to boost industrial competitiveness and globally promote “Chinese wisdom.” While there are cursory references to the role of standards in furthering “ethics” and “privacy,” the document does not outline how China will look to promote these values at SDOs.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a general purpose technology that has various outcomes and use-cases.Top down regulation of AI by governments is emerging across jurisdictions but this may not keep pace with the rapidly evolving technology  being developed by the private sector or adequately check the diversity of use-cases. On the other hand, private sector driven self-regulatory initiatives focussing on ‘ethical AI’ are very broad and provide too much leeway to technology companies to evade the law. Technical standards offer a middle ground where multiple stakeholders can come together to devise uniform requirements on various stages of the AI development lifecycle. Of course, technical standards must co-exist with government driven regulation as well as self regulatory codes to holistically govern the deployment of AI globally. However, while the first two modes of regulation has received plenty of attention from policy-makers and scholars alike, AI standard-setting is an emerging field that has yet to be concretely evaluated from a strategic and diplomatic perspective.

Introducing a new CIS-ASPI project

This is why researchers at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute have partnered with the Centre for Internet and Society (Bengaluru) to produce a ‘techplomacy guide’ on negotiating AI standards for stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific. Given the immense economic value of shaping global technical standards, it is imperative that SDOs not be dominated only by the likes of the US, Europe or China. The standards likely to impact a majority of nations, devised only from the purview of  a few countries may be context agnostic to the needs of emerging economies. Further, there are values at stake here. An excessive focus on security, accuracy or quality of AI-driven products may make some technology  palatable across the world even if the technology  undermines core democratic values such as privacy, and anti-discrimination. China’s efforts at shaping Facial Recognition Technology (FRT) standards at the ITU have been criticised for moving beyond mere technical specifications into the domain of policy recommendations despite there being a lack of representation of experts on human rights, consumer protection or data protection at the ITU. Accordingly, diversity of representation in terms of expertise, gender, and nationality at SDOs, including in leadership positions, are aspects our project will explore with an eye towards creating more inclusive participation.

Through this project ,we hope to identify how key stakeholders drive these initiatives and how technological standards can be devised in line both with core democratic values and strategic priorities. Through extensive consultations with several stakeholder groups, we plan to offer learning products to policy makers and technical delegates alike to enable Australian and Indian delegates to serve as ambassadors for our respective nations.

For more information on this new and exciting project funded by the Australian Departmentfor Foreign Affairs and Trade as part of the Australia India Cyber and Critical Technology Partnership grants, visit www.aspi.org.au/techdiplomacy and https://www.internationalcybertech.gov.au/AICCTP-grant-round-two

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