With much pomp and circumstance, the United States has proposed to the world a brand new beginning, with the expansion of its “clean network” initiative. The enemy is China, which must be purged from the reconfigured internet.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the programme is a “comprehensive approach to guarding our citizens’ privacy and our companies’ most sensitive information from aggressive intrusions by malign actors, such as the Chinese Communist Party”, addressing “the long-term threat to data privacy, security, human rights and principled collaboration posed to the free world from authoritarian malign actors”.
Under the initiative, the US government will undertake five lines of action and encourages its partners globally to follow suit. The US will work towards blocking Chinese telecommunication companies from connecting to US telecommunications networks and removing from app stores Chinese apps that “threaten (US) privacy, proliferate viruses, and spread propaganda and disinformation”.
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It aims to prevent Chinese smartphone manufacturers from pre-installing, or otherwise making available for download, US apps on Chinese apps stores. It will try to prevent US citizens’ personal information and businesses’ intellectual property, including Covid-19 vaccine research, from being stored and processed on Chinese cloud-based systems.
Finally, it will ensure that the undersea cables connecting partner countries are not subverted for intelligence gathering by Chinese government.
While Pompeo’s announcement infuriated China, the idea of a US “purge” of the internet has actually been fomenting for years. As early as 2012, the US government was preparing the ground for banning US companies from using Huawei telecom equipment. In May 2019, US President Donald Trump issued an executive order putting Huawei and dozens of its affiliates on the Department of Commerce’s Entity List, effectively banning Huawei from US communications networks.
But this month, Trump upped the ante by announcing a ban on TikTok and WeChat on dubious privacy and national security grounds. He even demanded the US get a “cut” from any fire sale of TikTok.
It is ironic that the US is trying to lead a global revolution for a “clean network”. For too long, the US has treated the internet as its private backyard. Countries all over the world have been forced to play by its rules.
Facebook and Twitter recently removed thousands of accounts that they said were run or influenced by foreign governments or groups. However, a Guardian report in 2011 revealed that the US military was developing software that would let it manipulate social media sites using fake online personas.
Last year, Apple allowed its app platform to be used for weeks by violent looters and “protesters” in Hong Kong to evade police. In contrast, when the mere words of conservative podcaster Alex Jones and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan were deemed too incendiary, Facebook, Twitter and Apple banned them from their platforms.
In recent years, European regulators have begun to push back against American tech companies’ standards of “freedom” and “privacy”, holding them responsible for their actions. Even in the US, there is a growing sense that American tech companies have become too powerful and need to be held more accountable. According to a Pew poll, three-quarters of American adults think that companies “intentionally censor political viewpoints”.
The Trump administration has yet to provide credible evidence that Huawei or TikTok poses a privacy or security threat. Meanwhile, over the past decade, we have seen evidence that the US government and American tech companies infringe on the privacy of users worldwide and other nations’ security.
Attacking TikTok won’t help protect Americans’ data privacy
Through a series of leaks by ex-CIA contractor Edward Snowden in 2012-2013, we learned of various techniques the US government routinely employed to infiltrate systems of not only foreign adversaries, but also its own citizens, companies and allies.
Secret court orders forced US telephone companies to hand over customers’ phone records to the National Security Agency. The PRISM programme required US-based tech companies to hand over user information stored on their servers – email, social media, and other data – to the US government. US companies routinely provided the US government back doors to their “encrypted systems”. The US and British governments worked together to intercept internet traffic flowing through fibre optic cables all over the world.
It is unfortunate that Europe has not created tech companies that are as dominant as the US’. This has created an unbalanced internet dominated by one country – to the detriment of the world.
Recently, despite pressure from the US, Brazil announced it would let Huawei participate in its 5G network. Brazil’s president said last month that any 5G deployment would have to meet national sovereignty, information and data security requirements.
Huawei should be able to provide this. In 2018, the company allowed the German government to review the source code for its 5G software. A company executive said it is prepared to work with all governments to alleviate security concerns. Other companies should do the same.
The fact that China is producing companies that are beginning to compete against the best the US has to offer represents a momentous opportunity for the world.
China has been at the vanguard of a sovereignty-based internet for over a decade. China is not asking the world to blindly trust its companies. It is, however, asking the world not to blindly follow the US’ groundless and self-serving attacks on Chinese companies.
For the first time, nations can demand accountability, respect for national sovereignty and national security, and data protection on the internet, on their own terms. A cleaner, more accountable internet is in reach.
Allen Yu is an IP attorney in Silicon Valley, a founding blogger at blog.hiddenharmonies.org, as well as an adjunct fellow at the Chunqiu Institute for Development and Strategic Studies
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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
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