Countries’ 5G networks have become the subject of intense debate—and the Australian government can take some of the credit for that. Its decision to exclude high-risk vendors in August 2018 was marked by a refreshing openness about the grounds on which it was made. The thinking about risk and security was very similar to that in the EU security assessment of 5G released in October 2019.
Two core factors in these assessments are that 5G providers that have legal and other imperatives to cooperate covertly and deeply with their home governments pose a greater security risk than providers without these obligations and imperatives—and that governments do not want to be beholden to the governments of states with which they do not share values or interests. Both these factors apply in the case of the Chinese state and its two 5G ‘national champions’, Huawei and ZTE.
While there has been a burgeoning and critical debate inside and between governments, there’s been strikingly less talk about what the future 5G world means for ‘big tech’ in China and the US—the two homes of the globe’s tech giants.
That’s surprising, because arguably the strategic and economic competition between Xi Jinping’s China and Donald Trump’s America has at its centre a contest over advanced technology and the future of global data and communications. Xi’s China Dream can’t be achieved without China’s big tech firms dominating their US counterparts globally, because gaining strategic and economic power depends so heavily on having technological ascendancy, especially in data and communications.
But even without the state-on-state great-power competition, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Amazon, Apple and Microsoft all have existential stakes in the future of global communications. The odd thing is they don’t seem to be acting like it.