Regional internet

18th September 2020

The internet as we know it could be about to change largely due to escalating tensions between the West and China. One of the recent casualties of the war of words between the United States (US) and China is that on 6th August US President Donald Trump ordered firms to stop doing business with Chinese apps TikTok and WeChat within forty-five days.1 These are hugely popular apps which enjoy a following across the world but which, according to the US president, represent a national security risk as data on US citizens could be shared with the Chinese government. TikTok has threatened legal action against the executive order.2 The move could well lead to a host of Chinese tech firms being banned or withdrawing investment in US companies, as global trust in the US commitment to business law is undermined.

The US is not the only country to do this as India has now banned more Chinese apps, adding to its list of fifty-nine banned in June, after a heightening of political tensions with China.3 There are also reports that Huawei and ZTE will be excluded from India’s lucrative mobile network. TikTok was reported to have ordered its India team to censor content critical of the Chinese government. While China’s ambassador to New Delhi released a statement that “forced decoupling is against the trend and will lead to a ‘lose-lose’ outcome”, it is unlikely the Chinese will forget the snub. Indian politicians see it as a way of increasing their security but also promoting self-reliance and investing in their own economy and education as they look to be the self-proclaimed new ‘super-power’ in the world. Critics within the country say this is far-fetched given the state of the economy, as $80 billion of trade with China cannot suddenly be replaced overnight. Chinese firms have invested huge sums of money in both Indian and US start-up tech firms. Banning or forcing buy-outs of Chinese firms, under the auspices of national security, seems like economic piracy and may well break World Trade Organisation rules, let alone be economically unsound.

Though it may seem obvious, the internet has helped the world become smaller and is truly a global phenomenon. However, this could be stopped if people are not able to communicate with one another between nations. If WeChat is banned what will the thousands of individuals and business users turn to conduct their communication? In short, how do companies that have businesses in China and the US communicate with their colleagues? Does a Chinese national living in the US but communicating with their family in China have to use a Chinese or US-based app?

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has now said he wants a “clean” internet, removing “untrusted” applications from mobile app stores, by which it is suggested he means he wants the internet in the US to be free from Chinese influence.4 While the US has long been an advocate for free speech this could very well lead them down a path to end up being just like China in the over-imposing state control of the internet and censorship. The Chinese Communist state does not allow Facebook or Google. Any form of ‘free speech’ is limited to companies that have ultimate control or censorship leading back to the Chinese Communist Party. If the US removes all Chinese companies from the internet, including mobile networks, then they will essentially be creating the same model. This will go no way to helping US-China prejudice as nationalism will undoubtedly come to the fore overbalanced and politically rigorous viewpoints.

Social media has become even more popular during the COVID-19 pandemic and therefore making the companies that control it that much more powerful. News spreads farther and faster than ever before, with social media blamed for the rise in civil disturbance in recent years, ever more so since the creation of #BlackLivesMatter and its more notable effect around the globe in past months.5 The ability to cross continents has not gone unnoticed by activist leaders and security services alike. Protests and movements may have remained isolated incidents in the past, contained by borders and media control. Now videos can be taken and spread around the globe, tapping into disillusion and resentment, and using it to fuel whatever agenda or cause that fits. China takes a very harsh stance against those who promote anti-state sentiment online. The recent issues surrounding the new security law in Hong Kong goes to show the level at which the Chinese state is willing to go to stop subversion. If Facebook refuses to give over data about a citizen of Hong Kong or take down ‘subversive’ comments it could face being banned from the city. Google has already refused to take down posts and could face fines, equipment seizures, and arrests if it declines again. It has already had to stop its use of Google maps citing “changing social circumstances”.6 While stopping fake news is important, where is the line between anti-nationalist sentiment and subversion? Will all companies now have to toe the line of the political party of the country they are in?

Limiting control from external actors, i.e. state powers, is a good thing and probably a necessity for an immediate future until nations can learn to gauge each other’s intentions over the provision of internet-based services. Nation-states inciting violence or controlling elections is becoming all too easy, with or without the companies being state-owned or influenced. ‘Members of the public’ can still use social media for propaganda whether they are ‘hired’ by other countries or are legitimately voicing their own cause. Recently leaked government documents in the UK that have laid blame on Russian ‘actors’ acting on behalf of the state is one public example.7 In this instance Russia does not own any of the mechanisms by which the information was spread and represents a very different type of cyber-security threat. A top US counterintelligence official has now also warned that China, Russia and Iran are already interfering in the 2020 presidential election through online disinformation aimed at influencing voter confidence.8 While voter fraud through increased use of postal votes may be possible to monitor through security agencies in the traditional sense, this new online control of public sentiment poses a greater threat.

US President Donald Trump’s administration is already finding it difficult to incorporate social media without blunders being overly publicised or remarks outright banned for misinformation. Social media giants Facebook and Twitter have started to ban the president’s posts claiming they mislead the public.9  This could lead the US government to reform social media and the internet wholesale, citing national security, in what will become a slippery slope into Orwellian control. While not a new concept the question is how will this affect other countries like the UK?

The internet is now facing an existential crisis. While it was supposed to bring about more social freedoms and communication, the amount of personal data available and its ability to act as a barometer of public opinion has made it too attractive to both external and internal state control. It is possible countries may now get caught up in a tech war with the major powers and forced to choose who will be its provider of social apps or make their own versions. Will the UK have to join a ‘trusted’ bubble of western controlled internet and apps to socialise and entertain us, all the while being closely monitored under the auspices of national security? It ultimately comes down to control, and whether that should rest with the companies, the state or the public. However, without there being one controlling body in charge that countries listen to, the internet as we know it is unlikely to continue.