Forget banning TikTok, the Trump State Department just suggested it wants to basically ban China from the internet. Rather than promoting an open internet and the concept of openness, it appears that under this administration we're slamming the gates shut and setting up the Great American Firewall for the internet. Under the guise of what it calls the Clean Network to Safeguard America, last night Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a program that is full of vague statements, that could, in practice, fragment the internet.

This is incredibly disappointing on multiple levels. While other countries -- especially China, but also Iran and Russia -- have created their own fragmented internet, the US used to stand for an open internet across the globe. Indeed, for whatever complaints we had about the State Department during the Obama administration (and we had many complaints), its commitment to an open internet was very strong and meaningful. That's clearly now gone. The "Clean Network to Safeguard America" consists of five programs that can be summed up as "fuck you China."

  • Clean Carrier: To ensure untrusted People’s Republic of China (PRC) carriers are not connected with U.S. telecommunications networks. Such companies pose a danger to U.S. national security and should not provide international telecommunications services to and from the United States.
  • Clean Store: To remove untrusted applications from U.S. mobile app stores. PRC apps threaten our privacy, proliferate viruses, and spread propaganda and disinformation. American’s most sensitive personal and business information must be protected on their mobile phones from exploitation and theft for the CCP’s benefit.
  • Clean Apps: To prevent untrusted PRC smartphone manufacturers from pre-installing –or otherwise making available for download – trusted apps on their apps store. Huawei, an arm of the PRC surveillance state, is trading on the innovations and reputations of leading U.S. and foreign companies. These companies should remove their apps from Huawei’s app store to ensure they are not partnering with a human rights abuser.
  • Clean Cloud: To prevent U.S. citizens’ most sensitive personal information and our businesses’ most valuable intellectual property, including COVID-19 vaccine research, from being stored and processed on cloud-based systems accessible to our foreign adversaries through companies such as Alibaba, Baidu, and Tencent.
  • Clean Cable: To ensure the undersea cables connecting our country to the global internet are not subverted for intelligence gathering by the PRC at hyper scale. We will also work with foreign partners to ensure that undersea cables around the world aren’t similarly subject to compromise.
So, take the talk of banning Huawei and ZTE on the networking side, and the rumblings about banning TikTok on the app side, and multiply by everything.

I certainly understand the arguments that certain Chinese companies and technologies may be conducting surveillance on Americans (even though investigations into both Huawei and TikTok haven't shown anything out of the ordinary), but this approach is incredibly short-sighted. First of all, it goes against the basic American stance on openness, especially regarding the internet. That just damages what little moral high ground we had left to stand on regarding the internet.

Second, all this does is justify the Chinese approach. Make no mistake about it, China will turn around and use this to justify its (much worse) practices, by saying "look, even the Americans filter out "foreign" apps and services." Giving the Chinese ammo like that is so incredibly short-sighted.

Third, so much of American technology is still made in China -- including pretty much every electronic gadget and IOT and "smart" device that fills everyone's homes these days. This is going to backfire in so many ways. The trade war and tariffs have already hit parts of the technology industry hard, and this move will certainly lead to retaliation in all sorts of ways -- potentially having a massive impact on American firms being able to make use of factories and technology from China. That will have ripple effects throughout the economy and will likely limit certain innovation possibilities. Indeed, this may even allow Chinese firms to justify abusing technology to do the kinds of surveillance people are now freaked out about.

Fourth, it will allow China to expand its influence elsewhere in the world, showing how the US can't be trusted and plays favorites with its own companies through protectionism.

In short, this is the kind of short-sighted policy that we're all too familiar with from the Trump Administration, but which will do significant damage to the US in the process.