Tech nationalism: 5G, cybersecurity and trade

26 Nov 2019 11:30h - 13:00h

Event report

[Read more session reports and updates from the 14th Internet Governance Forum]

This discussion focused on the understandings of the concept of tech nationalism and sought to gauge how widespread its application is. The moderators, Mr Milton Mueller (Georgia Tech, Internet Governance Project) and Mr William Drake (University of Zurich) highlighted the tendency of conflating cybersecurity and government issues, noting that this evolution can be viewed as a trend of reversing the liberalisation of the telecommunications industry. Drake further pointed out that this phenomenon, for which no current universally agreed definition exists, is not new. He went on to characterise it as a status project, a state building project, that binds social actors to the state via various levels of support, protection, restricted choice, and so on.

Mr Tobias Feakin (Australian Ambassador for Cyber Affairs) noted a shift in the way governments approach cyberspace, highlighting that today technology is at the centre of geopolitics. Therefore, Feakin emphasised, governments are looking more closely at those technological developments and want to make sure that their geopolitical goals are respected and represented in them.

Ms Jyoti Panday (Electronic Frontier Foundation) cited the rise of tech nationalism in India to highlight how new policies, along with limited collaboration with other states regarding specific technologies, are occurring. She acknowledged China’s rise as one of the leading suppliers of technology, and indicated that it has shaped India’s nationalist policies. Notwithstanding, India, like many other countries, is still trying to find a balance between independence and liberal technology markets. Similarly, Mr Jan-Peter Kleinhans (Stiftung Neue Verantwortung) said that tech nationalism could also be described as a way for governments to deal with the uncertainty of new technologies. In his view, a strong underlying concern of tech nationalism is the question of different jurisdictions rather than that of where data is stored.

Overall, all the speakers emphasised the dangers of data sovereignty and the desire to store data on national servers. Feakin discussed the misleading sense of security of storing data locally, reporting that it actually exposes it to more risks as opposed to storing it in the cloud. Given that a large part of technology-related revenues benefit a few, mostly foreign, providers, Panday and Kleinhans concluded their remarks by saying that data localisation can also be viewed as a negotiation strategy.

The discussion then moved to the 5G supplier debate, specifically focusing on the USA-China rivalry over the telecom supplier Huawei. Feakin pointed to the long term outlook of Australia’s decision to ban Huawei, given that a potential retroactive dismantling of infrastructure due to evidence of breaches in the future would be extremely costly and would have devastating effects on national industries that would have to replace their infrastructures.

Concerns stemming from the risk software updates pose to 5G infrastructures were also addressed. Mr Donald Morissey (Huawei) refuted the idea of intentionally integrating vulnerabilities through updates and mentioned existing structures in which Huawei collaborates with government agencies and in which their products can be verified by the latter. Therein, Morrissey and Kleinhans pointed to the importance of separating different types of threats into categories, given that the necessary experts and the responses to the threats are different. For Morrissey, it is about balancing national security, cybersecurity and trade innovation security interests. Kleinhans, however, highlighted the balance between IT security, trustworthiness, national security, and industrial policy. While not completely opposed, these four key elements show that there is no common understanding as to which issues take precedence over others, and which will remain embedded within cybersecurity and government issues.

Kleinhans further explained that one of the main issues for 5G suppliers, such as Huawei, is the concept of trust and the accompanying definitions in the country of origin. According to him, this is evidenced by Huawei’s reliance on the same global supply chains as their global competitors. Kleinhans continued by citing the Snowden revelations as an example of how states regain consumer trust in foreign markets. In this case, the Snowden revelations were followed by reforms in the USA to make their intelligence operations more transparent and to help US technology firms to regain consumer trust that they had lost in the Chinese and European markets. Certain panellists, therefore, suggested that an important aspect of these tensions could only be solved through a political decision to offer more transparency on the governing structures on which the company is based.

By Cedric Amon