[An edited version of this article first appeared at the South China Morning Post.]
With much pomp and circumstances, the U.S. has proposed to the world a brand new beginning, a shiny new age: a Clean Global Internet. The new enemy is China, which must be purged from the new rebuilt Internet.
According to Secretary of State Pompeo, “The Clean Network addresses the long-term threat to data privacy, security, human rights and principled collaboration posed to the free world from authoritarian malign actors.” “The Clean Network program is the Trump Administration’s 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 (CCP).”
Pompeo proposed five ways through which the U.S. government – together with willing partners from around the world – will create a new “Clean Network.” The U.S. will block Chinese telecommunication companies from connecting to their telecommunications networks; it will remove from app stores Chinese apps that can “threaten … privacy, proliferate viruses, and spread propaganda and disinformation”; it will prevent Chinese smartphone manufacturers from pre-installing – or otherwise making available for download – its apps on Chinese apps stores; it will prevent their citizens’ personal information and businesses’ valuable intellectual property, including COVID-19 vaccine research, from being stored and processed on Chinese cloud-based systems; it will ensure that the undersea cables connecting partner countries are not subverted for intelligence gathering by Chinese government.
As early as 2012, the U.S. government had begun the process to ban U.S. companies from using Huawei networking equipment. In May 2019, President Trump issued an executive order to put Huawei – along with dozens of its affiliates – on the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security Entity List, effectively banning Huawei from the communications networks of the U.S.
But this month, Trump upped the ante even more by announcing that he would be banning Tiktok and Wechat from the U.S. on dubious “privacy” and “national security” concerns. In the ensuing frenzy, he even publicly demanded a “cut” from any potential forced firesale of Tiktok.
It is truly ironic that it is the U.S. that is trying to lead a global revolution for a “clean network.” For too long, it is the U.S. that has treated the Internet as its private backyard. Countries all over the world have been forced to play by its rules, laws, and norms.
Facebook and Twitter recently took thousands of accounts that they said were run or influenced by foreign governments or groups. Both companies however have remained eerily quiet about the thousands of fake social media accounts created by the U.S. government.
Last year, when violent looters and “protesters” in Hong Kong used iPhone Apps to evade police, Apple (initially) allowed their platforms to be used as a tool to perpetuate more violence. By contrast, when the mere words of Conservative podcaster Alex Jones and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan were deemed too incendiary, too hateful, or too dangerous, American social media companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Apple were quick to pull their programs from their platforms.
Over the past few years, European regulators are beginning to push back against American Tech companies on their standards of “freedom” and “privacy” and beginning to hold their actions responsible. Even on American soil, there is a growing sense that American Tech companies have become too powerful and need to be held more accountable. According to a recent poll from Pew, three-quarters of Americans think that companies “intentionally censor political viewpoints.”
Lest people miss seeing the tree from the forest, the Trump’s Administration has yet to give any credible evidence of why a Huawei or Tiktok poses a privacy or security threat. The CIA itself has found zero evidence that the Chinese government has accessed Tiktok data.
Yet, in stark contrast, over the past decade, we have seen evidence of systematic assault by the U.S. government and America’s vaunted tech companies the world over on the privacy of users and the security of nations.
Through a series of leaks by Edward Snowden from 2012-2013, we learned of various techniques the U.S. government routinely employed to hack and infiltrate networks and systems of not only foreign adversaries, but also its allies, its own citizens and companies alike.
We learned of secret court orders that compelled American telephone companies to share and hand over customers’ phone records with the NSA. We learned of a program called PRISM that required U.S.-based tech companies to handover information relating to users stored on their servers – including email, social media, and other data – to the U.S. government. We learned of US companies routinely providing back doors to their so-called “encrypted systems” to the U.S. government.
We learned of how the U.S. and British governments have worked together to tap intercept internet traffic flowing through fiber optic cables all over the world.
It is a tragedy that Europe has not created tech companies that are dominant as America’s. That has created an unbalanced Internet dominated by one country – to the detriment of the world.
Recently, despite heavy pressure from the U.S., Brazil announced that it was willing to let Huawei participate in the nation’s build-out of 5G network. The Brazilian president had insisted that any 5G deployment would have to meet national sovereignty, information and data security requirements.
This is something Huawei should be able to provide.
Will all other companies do the same? They should!
The fact that China is finally producing companies that are beginning to compete against the best America has to offer represents a momentous opportunity to the world.
China has been at the vanguard of a sovereignty-based Internet for over a decade. China is not asking for the world to blindly trust its companies. It however is asking the world not to blindly follow America’s pitiful, groundless, and self-serving wholesale attacks on Chinese companies.
For the first time, nations can demand accountability and responsibility. They can demand national sovereignty, national security, and data protection on the Internet on their own terms. A new world is dawning. A cleaner, more accountable Internet is in reach. It is time for the world to seize the moment and to seize the day!