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China and the remaking of the internet

This article was originally printed in the Feb. 4, 2019 issue of The Round Table. 

The internet is being remade, but in whose image? Huawei, China’s leading telecommunications company, is building an extensive fifth generation (5G) network in partnership with countries all over the world. If a Chinese company becomes the leading force in structuring and distributing 5G tele-communications, the closely-linked Chinese government will have the power to reshape the very bones cyber-communications and infrastructure at a hegemonic scale. The United States is taking aggressive steps to prevent this outcome, signaling the start of a geopolitical conflict that will digitally define much of the globe.

The Fifth Incarnation

Think of a 5G network as a new incarnation of the internet’s wireless body. It’s a set of technical ground rules that define the workings of a network. It will serve the same purpose of the current 4G network, that is, to provide and regulate the channels through which data and other forms of information are transmitted.

Except 5G is a big step forward, a transition the NYT describes as “more revolutionary than evolutionary.” It is fast. Data download speeds are near instant, allowing users to access and pull forward files as large as movies in seconds.

More significantly, the 5G network is the first ever designed to allow sensors, robots, autonomous vehicles and other devices to communicate with one another using vast amounts of data. This means that factories and other forms of infrastructure will be able to run themselves with little to no human intervention. The 5G network will also allow for the faster spread and proliferation of artificial intelligence and virtual reality technologies.

Physically, the 5G network is a network of switches and routers. However, it is more reliant than ever before on layers of complicated software, software that is malleable and adaptable. The 5G network updates itself, autonomously and constantly. Whoever controls such a constant flow of mass data has the power to potentially alter, copy, or reroute any and all information without users’ knowledge.

The State of China

Last February, Chinese President Xi Jinping abolished constitutional term limits, effectively securing his position as president for life. China is a one-party state, with extensive government control over political, social, and economic life. Though it is not the only authoritarian state in the world, it is one of the wealthiest, strongest, and most developed in machine learning and artificial intelligence research.

An intersection of authoritarian governance and data-driven machine learning has disturbing consequences. China has extensive access to data about all of its citizens. There are plans to create a centralized database of all such personal data, then use it to build a “social credit system.” Based on their data, people will be evaluated by algorithms to determine whether or not they pose a threat to the state. They will be treated according to what the algorithms determine.

In short, China is a unique example of an authoritarian state making use of artificial intelligence and data-driven machine learning in order to govern its populace according to its repressive style of rule.

Under Chinese law, a company like Huawei is required to cooperate in any capacity with the Beijing government when asked. This makes it less possible to distinguish between the private interests of the company and the foreign policy agenda of the Chinese state.

By allowing a Chinese company to build and operate the 5G network, which is reliant on and allows for a use and spread of increasingly advanced AI technologies, the world runs the risk of giving the Chinese government hegemonic control over the medium through which all data, personal and infrastructural, is exchanged at a global scale.

A New Cold War

Over the past year, the United States has been stealthily discouraging, and outright pressuring, allies to refuse cooperation with Huawei. The Trump Administration requested Britain ban Huawei, and put pressure on Poland to refuse offers from the company, stating that future troop deployments and the construction of an American fort hinged on the decision.

Last spring, a delegation of Americans went to Germany, where most of Europe’s fiberoptic channels connect. Huawei wants to build the switches that make the next European 5G system run. America asserts that any partnership with the company is a security threat to the NATO alliance.

China already has a history of hacking into American networks and stealing data through “back doors” in technology and software. Though this would remain a threat, the true danger of a widespread use of Huawei services is the potential for the Chinese government to look into, or even take control of, 5G networks in other countries.

Current and former U.S. officials, intelligence officers, and telecommunications executives agree that an understanding of the power of the 5G network has instilled a sense in the Trump White House that there can be but one single winner in this new arms race, China or the United States.

This competition is only going to grow more intense as more and more countries face decisions about which equipment providers will build their 5G networks. Once again, two superpowers are vying for control over the geopolitical landscape of the globe.

The European Union is currently considering laws that would make it effectively illegal to collaborate with Huawei, signaling a deference to American influence. Last Monday, the Justice Department announced sweeping charges against Huawei and its chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou.

It is likely that escalations between the two countries will continue. As the world shifts toward machine-learning and automation, who controls the network on which all systems operate, on which all personal data is stored and exchanged, is of vital importance. The internet is being remade, and with it the boundaries and norms that check and define how human civilization functions. Whether it be China or the United States, whoever controls the 5G network will play a large part in defining human life in the coming century.

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