The Trump administration unveiled a wild plan to wall off China from the US internet
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday announced a broad program to crack down on Chinese apps and services.
The “Clean Network” program will block “untrusted” Chinese apps from app stores; stop Chinese phone companies from pre-installing US apps; keep US data off Chinese cloud services; and guard undersea cables
It isn’t clear that the plan is workable, and risks balkanizing the internet.
Banning TikTok was only the tip of the iceberg.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday announced a new “Clean Network” initiative, aimed at blocking off large swathes of China’s internet from the US.
This comes the same week as President Trump ordered that hugely successful social media app TikTok — which is owned by Chinese tech company ByteDance — sell off its US business to an American company or else face getting banned.
“The Clean Network program is the Trump Administration’s comprehensive approach to guarding our citizens’ privacy and our companies’ most sensitive information from aggressive intrusions by malign actors, such as the Chinese Communist Party,” Pompeo wrote in the announcement of the program.
The plans will stoke worries that the internet is set to become increasingly balkanized, with citizens unable to access certain apps or services thanks to geopolitical tensions.
Pompeo outlined five ways in which the initiative aims to keep China away from America’s internet, although he was not entirely clear about how they might be technically enforced.
1. Telecoms carriers
Pompeo said this part of the initiative is: “to ensure untrusted People’s Republic of China (PRC) carriers are not connected with US telecommunications networks. Such companies pose a danger to US national security and should not provide international telecommunications services to and from the United States.”
It is not clear from the press announcement exactly how this will work, whether it will bar Chinese telecoms carriers from operating in the US, or whether it might make it impossible for people in China and the US to call one another.
2. No “untrusted” Chinese apps on US app stores
The “Clean Store” part of the initiative aims: “To remove untrusted applications from US mobile app stores,” meaning Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store.
This explanation for this runs: “PRC apps threaten our privacy, proliferate viruses, and spread propaganda and disinformation. American’s [sic] most sensitive personal and business information must be protected on their mobile phones from exploitation and theft for the CCP’s benefit.”
This may mean booting Chinese apps, currently permitted on both the major app stores, out entirely.
3. American developers won’t be allowed to have their apps pre-installed on phones made by Chinese companies
The “Clean Apps” part of the initiative is: “To prevent untrusted PRC smartphone manufacturers from pre-installing –or otherwise making available for download – trusted apps on their apps store.”
Pompeo specifically names Chinese tech giant Huawei as an example, calling it “an arm of the PRC surveillance state.” The US government has long accused Huawei of acting as a proxy for the Chinese government to spy, which Huawei denies.
“These [trusted] companies should remove their apps from Huawei’s app store to ensure they are not partnering with a human rights abuser,” Pompeo writes.
Currently, US apps including Amazon’s shopping app and Snapchat are available on Huawei’s App Gallery.
4. Americans will have to keep their data off Chinese cloud services
Pompeo says this is: “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.”
5. Keeping China away from undersea internet cables
Pompeo writes this part of the initiative is: “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.”
It’s not clear how exactly this part of the plan will manifest itself, but in June a DOJ telecoms committee advised the FCC to block the construction of an undersea cable to Hong Kong.