By James ClaytonNorth America technology reporter
- 7 August 2020
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says he wants a “clean” internet.
What he means by that is he wants to remove Chinese influence, and Chinese companies, from the internet in the US.
But critics believe this will bolster a worrying movement towards the breaking up of the global internet.
The so called “splinternet” is generally used when talking about China, and more recently Russia.
The idea is that there’s nothing inherent or pre-ordained about the internet being global.
For governments that want to control what people see on the internet, it makes sense to take ownership of it.
The Great Firewall of China is the best example of a nation putting up the internet equivalent of a wall around itself. You won’t find a Google search engine or Facebook in China.
What people didn’t expect was that the US might follow China’s lead.
Yet critics believe that is the corollary of Mr Pompeo’s statement on Thursday.
Mr Pompeo said he wanted to remove “untrusted” applications from US mobile app stores.
“People’s Republic of China apps threaten our privacy, proliferate viruses, and spread propaganda and disinformation,” he said.
The first question that sprang to mind was: what are the Chinese apps that Mr Pompeo does trust? The assumption is very much that he’s talking about ALL Chinese apps.
“It’s shocking,” says Alan Woodward, a security expert based at the University of Surrey. “This is the Balkanisation of the internet happening in front of our eyes.
“The US government has for a long time criticised other countries for controlling access to the internet… and now we see the Americans doing the same thing.”
That might be a slight exaggeration. Mr Pompeo’s reasons for “cleaning” the US network of Chinese companies is very different to authoritarian government’s desire to control what is said online.
But it’s true that if Mr Pompeo were to go down this road, it would be reversing decades of US cyber-policy.
If there is one country that has championed a free internet, based on the constitutional tenets of free speech, it is America.
President Donald Trump’s administration has taken a different approach though, in part because of the legitimate security concerns that some Chinese companies operating in the US raise.
Alex Stamos, former chief security officer at Facebook, told me that much-mentioned TikTok was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of Chinese apps to worry about.
“TikTok isn’t even in my top 10,” he told me.
The app Mr Stamos suggests the US should be more wary of is Tencent’s WeChat.
“WeChat is one of the most popular messaging apps in the world… people run companies on We Chat, they have incredibly sensitive information.”
Mr Pompeo has also namechecked WeChat as a potential future target.
It’s hard not to view this through the prism of the US elections in November. Mr Trump’s anti-China rhetoric isn’t limited to tech.
Policy or posture?
So is this a policy position – or simply posture?
Mr Trump may also of course lose in November. The Democrats would probably take a more moderate position on Chinese tech.
But, as it stands, Mr Trump’s vision of the US internet – an internet in the main free of China – makes it a far more divided place.
The great irony is that the internet would then look a lot more like China’s vision.
Just look at TikTok itself. If Microsoft does buy the US arm there will be three TikToks.
A TikTok in China (called Douyin). A rest of the world TikTok. And a TikTok in the US.
Could that be a model for the future of the internet?