Strengthening U.S. Engagement in International Standards Bodies

Authors: Natalie Thompson and Mark Montgomery


Technical standards underpin the functioning of digital devices central to everyday life. What might, at first glance, seem to be a wonky, technical process for figuring out things like how to ensure mobile devices can all connect to the same network, has emerged as an arena of geopolitical competition. Standards confers first-mover advantages on the companies that propose them and economic benefits on countries, and they implicate values like privacy. China has aggressively sought to promote its technical standards by encouraging Chinese representatives to assume leadership roles in standards bodies, financially rewarding companies that propose technical standards, coercing Chinese firms to vote as a bloc within standards bodies, and working to shape the standards landscape to its advantage.

In light of the growing recognition of the strategic importance of technical standards, the March 2020 report from the U.S. Cyberspace Solarium Commission (CSC) recommended that the United States “engage actively and effectively in forums setting international information and communications technology standards.” In a similar vein, the FY2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) included a provision tasking the Departments of State and Commerce and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with considering how to advance U.S. representation in international standards bodies. This paper expands on the CSC’s recommendation and proposes concrete actions to be taken in support of the aims outlined in the FY2021 NDAA. In brief, the U.S. federal government should:

● Direct and organize departments and agencies to better coordinate input to (and participation in) international standards bodies;

● Work with like-minded countries to advance technically sound standards proposals that preserve the free, open, and interoperable nature of the ICT ecosystem;

● Facilitate a public-private partnership to encourage and support greater participation of U.S. companies in international standards bodies; and

● Seek transparency reforms within international standards bodies and advocate for “cooling-off periods” that prevent former government officials (from any country) from taking on leadership roles in standards bodies for a specified period of time following government service.

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About the Authors

Natalie Thompson is a research analyst with the U.S. Cyberspace Solarium Commission. Prior to the Commission, she was a James C. Gaither Junior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where she worked with the Technology and International Affairs Program on a range of issues related to influence operations and cybersecurity. She holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and mathematics from Kalamazoo College, in Kalamazoo, MI. Natalie tweets at @natalierthom.

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RADM (ret) Mark Montgomery serves as senior director of the Center on Cyber and Technology Innovation at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he leads FDD’s efforts to advance U.S. prosperity and security through technology innovation while countering cyber threats that seek to diminish them. Prior to joining FDD, Mark served as the Executive Director of the congressionally mandated Cyberspace Solarium Commission, where he remains a Senior Advisor. Previously, he served as Policy Director for the Senate Armed Services Committee under the leadership of Senator John S. McCain. Mark served for 32 years in the U.S. Navy as a nuclear trained surface warfare officer, retiring as a Rear Admiral in 2017. Mark has graduate degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Oxford University. Mark tweets at @MarkCMontgomery.