The pioneers of the internet and the web saw themselves as liberators. They believed, passionately, they were creating a better world – one that was open, collaborative, broke down barriers, and brought people from different countries, creeds and colours together. It was like Californian 1960s hippies became engineers – in some cases, such as Steve Jobs, quite literally.
This week, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo came to London in the wake of the government’s decision to continue to allow Huawei equipment to be used in the UK’s telecoms infrastructure, and told us he wants the next generation of technology to “operate under a Western set of values and systems”.
The only semblance of logic in that statement is that he wants tech to have US backdoors, instead of Chinese ones. Both countries have laws that allow them to coerce tech suppliers to support their spying and surveillance activities. But one is “them” and one is “us”.
In positions of power, it is becoming increasingly normalised to talk about a world divided by technology, not united. The concept of one set of tech and suppliers for the West, and another set for the rest, is being taken worryingly seriously. There is no positive outcome to such a move.
Let’s be clear about Huawei – a company barely anyone outside of tech had even heard of a couple of years ago. It has been part of the UK telecoms infrastructure for nearly 20 years, in both fixed and mobile networks. The UK government – through GCHQ – has unprecedented access to Huawei’s core software code. That doesn’t mean Huawei is 100% safe, but it does mean our cyber security spooks know where it is safe to use, and where not. If the US president was not engaged in a tit-for-tat trade war with China, most people would still not have heard of Huawei.
The reason Huawei was considered safe for all those years was because it agreed to the unprecedented openness and transparency demanded by the UK government, in an attempt to prove it was willing to conform to our local concerns. Now, it seems, governments have come to fear openness and transparency, and what it means to their politics.
Tech firms aren’t helping – Facebook is apparently on a mission to redefine the meaning of “open” and “transparent” to suit its business model.
Consider too, that one reason why Huawei is market leader in 5G equipment is because China has invested so heavily in the technologies of the future. You can question the motivation for spending so many billions, but not the benefits in terms of technological development. Western governments chose not to invest in the same way – in the UK even more so, still hailing some sort of triumph when our leading tech companies are sold into overseas ownership.
Today, sadly, technology is increasingly being used to divide nations and cultures, to create barriers – dare we say it, to build walls. It’s being used to coerce and control, instead of collaborate and communicate.
It has taken a long time for governments to understand the power of the digital revolution. In the long term, it’s a revolution that will overwhelm them. But until that happens, we should all be worried about the potential for technology to be used to divide us.