Paper - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

The Geopolitics of Digital Standards

| July 2022

Separating Hype from Reality


Digital standards are the established norms that guide the development of digital technologies to ensure interoperability across products— international digital trade, commerce, and communication would not function seamlessly without them. These standards are in many ways as important as the software and hardware they underpin, from industrial control systems that allow utility operators to connect generation with distribution to the infrastructure that makes the internet work. In addition to providing product frameworks, digital standards help ensure transparent and safe applications of technologies and enable coordinated interoperability across manufacturers.

Long the domain of engineers and developers, digital standards have increasingly become the subject of strategic policy debate. In addition to lowering barriers to trade and costs to companies and consumers, standards define the normative evolution of the internet and digital world.1 As digital technologies are increasingly embedded in all aspects of society, these technical specifications are difficult to separate from core values and principles. The technical, economic, and social implications of digital standards represent a strategic mode of extending geopolitical reach across domains, placing them at the core of emerging technology governance structures.

China’s emergence as a peer technology competitor and increased presence in global standard-setting bodies has raised concerns among policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic. Many of these concerns are legitimate, especially in the context of divergent worldviews about the values that should guide the development and use of the global internet. Indeed China’s state-led model of standards-setting and overall approach to digital governance architecture stands in stark contrast to the traditionally market-led and more open models adopted by the United States and European Union. The United States’ current approach, characterized by market-led development of digital standards, is not sufficiently robust to confront the proliferation of a new brand of digital authoritarianism that could jeopardize the open nature of the global internet that exists today.

Yet the world of digital standards is vast, with equally complex implications when Chinese and other national or commercial players are involved. A new approach should prioritize U.S. involvement based on the extent to which digital standards-setting activities inhibit or advance global security, commercial, and human rights interests. The United States should reverse its current hands-off approach to digital standards development and focus on what specific standards-setting activities are likely to impact U.S. strategic interests in the immediate, medium, and long term.

Toward the goal of developing a technically informed strategy for digital standards, policymakers must:

1. Increase technical literacy within the policymaking community to distinguish and prioritize standards across infrastructure, protocol, and application layers of the internet.

2. Facilitate greater public and private sector participation in multi-stakeholder standards bodies through federally funded training and stipends.

3. Develop a clear picture of which digital standards that oppose U.S. strategic interests and values are being adopted by global markets by filling existing data gaps regarding digital standards implementation across technology sectors and geographies.

This brief outlines what digital standards are and how the United States, European Union, and China approach standards development. It examines the implications of China’s efforts to advance a new model of cyber sovereignty through its “New IP” proposal to illustrate that overhauls of existing infrastructure-level standards are unlikely, but foreshadow the changing nature of standards from a historically apolitical domain to one of geopolitical importance. Finally, it offers considerations for the development of a long-term strategy that focuses on technology areas of strategic interest to the U.S. at the application layer through targeted regulations that promote a free, open, and democratic internet while maintaining a clear and technically informed understanding of what is likely to change (and what is not) at the infrastructure level.

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For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Faaborg-Andersen, Sophie and Lindsay Temes. “The Geopolitics of Digital Standards.” Paper, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, July 2022.

The Authors