The success of China’s own technology giants has done much to put this attitude to bed, but a true line was drawn this week. Russia and China are now moving forward with the next generation of internet technology, and this time it is the US that is at risk of being left behind.
At the heart of this divide is the Chinese firm Huawei, the world’s biggest telecom equipment supplier and undisputed leader in 5G networking. Washington has banned Huawei from any involvement in American 5G networks and threatened to cut it off from US software and components needed for its smartphone and network equipment businesses.
Outside of the US, whether to buy from Huawei or not is increasingly becoming a political litmus test, one that threatens to exacerbate the bifurcation of the global internet into separate spheres, and hasten the demise of the open, truly worldwide web as we know it.
Those that choose to avoid Huawei also risk falling behind as the world moves towards the next stage of internet and communications technology.
That isn’t as many as it should have, however. Finland’s Nokia signed 12 new 5G contracts in the last two months, compared to just three for Huawei. That’s despite Huawei being considered by many in the industry to be the world leader when it comes to 5G, and able to undercut its rivals considerably on pricing.
The Shenzhen-based firm has found itself on the front line of the escalating trade war between the US and China. One of its top executives has been detained in Canada on US charges, it has been locked out of the US market, and Washington has put increasing pressure on allies to take action against the firm as well.
On one side, there are allies of Beijing who have no problem with Huawei, with Russia only the latest major example. On the other there is Washington and a handful of its closest allies, who have vowed to shut the Chinese firm out.
That’s not to say the US can’t catch up — and eventually even overtake China — but it will likely be a struggle.
The vision of the internet as an open and shared platform in which technologies and standards cross borders and develop in a globalized fashion is one that has always been more of a guiding light than an actual reality.
That fragility has only become more apparent. Led by China, more and more countries are turning against the principle of the open internet, adopting Beijing’s doctrine of cyber sovereignty, in which governments tightly guard the borders of their own internets, boosting their own tech firms and forcing international competitors to localize their data and make it available to domestic security agencies.
For a long time, this trend has been driven by Beijing, which has happily exported the technology and expertise to aid countries in building their own tightly controlled internets, or in the case of Russia, lock down a once free and open one.
With its campaign against Huawei, however, Washington has now begun accelerating this division as well.
Lightning-fast 5G networks were predicted to bring us ever closer. The Huawei divide could mean they end up pushing us apart.