Voluntary global standards ensure interoperability and underlie technologies such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, the domain name system and Internet Protocol versions 4 and 6, among many others. But experts warn that growing unease about national security and increasing technological competition imperil this longstanding cooperation among nations.
At the root of the problem are geopolitical tensions among the U.S., Europe and China, which are leading to new technology standards-setting organizations that are less open and collaborative, said Agatha Kratz, director at the research firm Rhodium Group. Kratz, who co-authored a report on increasing U.S.-European Union cooperation on global tech standards, spoke during a webinar on global tech standards hosted by the Hudson Institute.
Kratz argued that globally developed standards create the basis for diversity, innovation, product improvement and cost reduction, and continue open competition.
"If you want to win the competitive race against China, you're better off with global standards," she said.
Impact of less global collaboration on tech standards
International tech standards organizations, including the International Organization for Standardization, the International Telecommunication Union and the International Electrotechnical Commission, work together to establish voluntary global technology standards such as the universal standards for MPEG file storage and transfer.
Indeed, global standards-setting bodies are open and often industry-driven, bringing together industry and technology experts to craft guidance without top-down direction from governments, said Nigel Cory, associate director of trade policy at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, during the webinar.
However, in recent years, the mounting concern about China's involvement in standards-setting is driving policies in the EU and U.S. that are causing the governments to step back from the global standards organizations unnecessarily, Cory said.
The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, presented its standardization strategy last year prohibiting foreign experts from participating in standards-setting in the EU. The EU is further embedding its domestic standards-setting capabilities in legislation such as the AI Act, Cory said. The European Parliament, the EU's legislative arm, recently approved the AI Act, advancing it toward finalization.
"That is essentially sort of contributing to the bifurcation in the international standards system," Cory said.
The EU believes it will be the primary regulator of new, emerging technologies, demonstrating how European leaders have become distrustful of individual companies participating in standards-setting dialogues, said Fredrik Erixon, director of the European Centre for International Political Economy, during the webinar.
Nigel CoryAssociate director of trade policy, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation
"In this technological race, Europe believes it can actually get an advantage by controlling its own standardization process more thoroughly than it's done in the past," Erixon said. "This is not a strategy which is going to be helpful for Europe."
The European Union and U.S. governments established the EU-U.S. Trade and Technology Council in 2021 to serve as a forum for cooperating on technology standards, export controls and global trade challenges. However, Cory said that while the EU claims it wants to work together with the U.S. on setting standards for emerging technologies, its standardization strategy that excludes U.S. companies from setting standards in the EU indicates otherwise.
"Europe is forging ahead in using technical standards for industrial policy, and the Biden administration isn't willing to call them out on it," he said. "It's prioritizing 'good vibes' instead of holding the Europeans to account to live up to what they're saying they want to do with the U.S. on technical standards."
The growing lack of collaboration would affect work on AI standards, which Cory said are tricky and complicated. He said existing standards-development organizations have been working on AI standards for years, and Europe's move to exclude foreign participants from setting AI standards in such a tricky process "seems shortsighted."
"I don't see how that works out well for Europe in contributing to the type of standards that will be critical to new and emerging technologies," Cory said.
Addressing concerns about China
Kratz said that to make countries and companies feel more secure while engaging with global standards organizations, it will be crucial for those organizations to monitor China's actions specifically.
Cory said the governance structure existing within global standards organizations provides a vetting mechanism for standards no matter which country submits them. While China might make multiple standards submissions to a standards organization, he said, "what matters is the quality of the submissions."
In addition, Kratz said there need to be more open-ended suggestions, recommendations and conversations around national security.
The Biden administration released its national standards strategy for critical and emerging technology last month. Cory said it reflects how the U.S. sees technical standards "through a disproportionately powerful lens of national security."
"There are clear and legitimate concerns about Chinese firms and standards playing a greater role," he said. "But an overpowered national security lens leads to bad outcomes in terms of undermining international standards systems."
Makenzie Holland is a news writer covering big tech and federal regulation. Prior to joining TechTarget Editorial, she was a general reporter for the Wilmington StarNews and a crime and education reporter at the Wabash Plain Dealer.