The US is building a new Great Firewall

Another wall goes up.
Another wall goes up.
Image: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
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A “digital Berlin Wall” between the US and China now looks more real than ever.

The US state department announced today that it will expand its “Clean Network” initiative, first rolled out in April, to root out major Chinese tech products from the US system. The department said the move is aimed at guarding US citizens’ privacy and US companies’ sensitive information from “aggressive intrusions by malign actors.”

“With parent companies based in China, apps like TikTok, WeChat, and others are significant threats to the personal data of American citizens, not to mention tools for Chinese Communist Party content censorship,” said Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state.

Under the expanded initiative, which focuses on five areas, “untrusted” Chinese telecom carriers, apps, and cloud service providers including Alibaba, Tencent, and Baidu will be prevented from storing or processing US user data, being downloaded from US app stores, or connected to the US telecom system. Moreover, Chinese smartphone makers such as Huawei will be prevented from pre-installing or offering downloads of some US or foreign apps. Undersea cables that connect the US to the global internet will also be scrutinized by the US government.

While the announcement does not give a timeline of the initiative or explain whether it is compulsory for American entities to comply, the announcement is an escalation of the country’s efforts to divide the internet between China and the US. Most recently, the US has made a series of threats to ban Chinese apps including TikTok and WeChat, citing their threats to national security. TikTok will either have to be sold to a US company such as Microsoft, or face shutting down by the Sept. 15 deadline given by the White House. A growing number of US allies are also following suit in choosing to exclude Chinese telecoms equipment maker Huawei from their 5G networks.

Some worry that the US’s tech policy is now following in the steps of authoritarian regimes, which advocate the concept of  “internet sovereignty”: the idea that a nation’s sovereignty extends from its physical territory into cyberspace. For years, China has blocked major foreign tech companies including Google and Twitter, via a Great Firewall which both prevents its citizens from viewing sensitive information and offers protection for its home-grown tech champions. For the US to also shut out platforms based on their national origin, critics argue, would suggest that Beijing’s vision of a fragmented, tightly controlled internet is triumphing over that of an open internet.

Even the language used by the US government now mirrors that of Beijing when it comes to the internet. The Chinese government, for example, has implemented multiple “internet cleanup campaigns” to crack down on vulgar, pornographic, or politically sensitive content. In his announcement, Pompeo laid out “five cleans” to explain the areas covered by the government initiative.

“For decades, the US has been perceived as the defender of free trade and free speech… the US (or at least the Trump administration) seems to have become less enthusiastic about those values,” wrote Pavel Durov, founder and CEO of messaging app Telegram, in a post. “Soon, every big country is likely to use ‘national security’ as a pretext to fracture international tech companies. And ironically, it’s the US companies like Facebook or Google that are likely to lose the most from the fallout.”

Among the critics of the US State Department’s latest moves is also the Chinese government, with foreign minister Wang Yi accusing Pompeo of attempting “draw an iron curtain.”