U.S. “Clean Network” Seeks to Ban “Untrusted” Chinese Apps

In April, the U.S. State Department announced the “5G Clean Path” initiative which “will begin requiring a Clean Path for all 5G network traffic entering and exiting U.S. diplomatic facilities,” by limiting “equipment from untrusted IT vendors, such as Huawei and ZTE, which are required to comply with directives of the Chinese Communist Party.” As tensions between the U.S. and China continue to escalate rapidly, the U.S. announced the five-fold expansion of the initiative into the “Clean Network to Safeguard America’s Assets” program. In an August 5 press statement, the Department of State outlined and justified the expansion:

The five new lines of effort for the Clean Network are as follows:

  • 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. [Source]

CNBC’s Amanda Macias reports from Secretary Pompeo’s press conference, which focused on the aim of removing untrusted Chinese apps from American stores:

“With parent companies based in China, apps like TikTok and WeChat and others, are significant threats to personal data of American citizens, not to mention tools for Chinese Communist Party content censorship,” Pompeo said during a press briefing.

The nation’s top diplomat also added that the State Department would work with the Commerce Department as well as the Defense Department to limit the ability of Chinese cloud service providers to collect, store, and process data in the United States.

[…] In addition to restricting Chinese apps and cloud services, the Clean Network effort will also try to ensure that “untrusted” Chinese handset makers such as Huawei don’t preinstall trusted apps or make them available to download through their app stores, that Chinese carriers aren’t connected to U.S. telecoms networks, and that the Chinese government does not subvert underseas network cables connecting the U.S. to the internet in order to gather intelligence.

[…] U.S. officials have long complained that Chinese intellectual property theft has cost the economy billions of dollars in revenue and thousands of jobs and threatens national security. Beijing maintains it does not engage in intellectual property theft. [Source]

The announcement follows Pompeo’s statement last month that the State Department was considering a ban on several Chinese social media apps, and President Trump’s comment last weekend on a plan to ban Chinese-owned short video-sharing app TikTok by executive order. [UPDATE August 7, 8:00 AM PT: On the evening of August 6, President Trump announced a sweeping ban on U.S. transactions with TikTok’s parent company ByteDance and WeChat owner Tencent.] Days later, Trump said that TikTok could stay in the U.S. only if sold to a “secure” and “very American” company by mid-September, after which company executives announced cooperation with the U.S. government and updates to policies aimed at curbing misinformation ahead of elections in November. Microsoft has confirmed that it has been in talks with parent company ByteDance and intends to continue towards a deal by Trump’s deadline. At the BBC, technology reporter James Clayton highlighted the substantial risk that Microsoft is taking in pursuing this deal and the scale of geopolitical baggage that comes with the likely cut-rate asset (noting Microsoft’s relative avoidance of even domestic politics to date by its absence at last week’s social media congressional hearing).

In a more recent article, the BBC’s Clayton highlights criticism of the U.S. Clean Network move from those who see it as a step towards a cyberpolicy resembling that long advocated by Beijing:

The Great Firewall of China is the best example of a nation putting up the internet equivalent of a wall around itself. You won’t find a Google search engine or Facebook in China.

What people didn’t expect was that the US might follow China’s lead.

[…] “It’s shocking,” says Alan Woodward, a security expert based at the University of Surrey. “This is the Balkanisation of the internet happening in front of our eyes.

“The US government has for a long time criticised Russia, Iran… and now we see the Americans doing the same thing.”

[…] Alex Stamos, former chief security officer at Facebook, told me that much-mentioned TikTok was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of Chinese apps to worry about. [Source]

Similar critique of the obvious turn away from the optimistic free internet advocacy long promoted by Washington followed the recent announcement of a proposed TikTok ban.

More from Jane Li at Quartz, who notes that U.S. tech policy and related rhetoric are both becoming increasingly reminiscent of Beijing’s:

Some worry that the US’s tech policy is now following in the steps of authoritarian regimes, which advocate the concept of  “internet sovereignty”: the idea that a nation’s sovereignty extends from its physical territory into cyberspace. For years, China has blocked major foreign tech companies including Google and Twitter, via a Great Firewall which both prevents its citizens from viewing sensitive information and offers protection for its home-grown tech champions. For the US to also shut out platforms based on their national origin, critics argue, would suggest that Beijing’s vision of a fragmented, tightly controlled internet is triumphing over that of an open internet.

Even the language used by the US government now mirrors that of Beijing when it comes to the internet. The Chinese government, for example, has implemented multiple “internet cleanup campaigns” to crack down on vulgar, pornographic, or politically sensitive content. In his announcement, Pompeo laid out “five cleans” to explain the areas covered by the government initiative.

“For decades, the US has been perceived as the defender of free trade and free speech… the US (or at least the Trump administration) seems to have become less enthusiastic about those values,” wrote Pavel Durov, founder and CEO of messaging app Telegram, in a post. “Soon, every big country is likely to use ‘national security’ as a pretext to fracture international tech companies. And ironically, it’s the US companies like Facebook or Google that are likely to lose the most from the fallout.” [Source]

At Tech Crunch, Rita Liao argues that the move represents not only an attack on the open internet but also on open trade, and notes both opposition to the initiative from Beijing and Chinese social media users’ comparisons to routine internet crackdowns overseen by Beijing:

More than a third of the world’s smartphone sales come from Chinese vendors Huawei, Xiaomi and Oppo. These manufacturers have thrived not only because they offer value-for-money handsets thanks to China’s supply chains, but they also enjoy a relatively open mobile ecosystem, in which consumers in most countries can freely access the likes of Google, Instagram and WhatsApp.

That openness is under attack as the great U.S.-China tech divide inches closer to reality, which can cause harm on both sides.

[…] Beijing said Thursday it’s firmly opposed to U.S. restrictions on Chinese tech firms and blasted that the U.S. uses such actions to preserve its technology hegemony.

Many on Chinese social media compare Trump’s Clean Network proposal to routine cyberspace crackdowns in China, which regulators say are to purge pornography, violence, gambling and other “illegal” activities. Others that espouse a free internet lament its looming demise. [Source]


Subscribe to CDT


Browsers Unbounded by Lantern

Now, you can combat internet censorship in a new way: by toggling the switch below while browsing China Digital Times, you can provide a secure "bridge" for people who want to freely access information. This open-source project is powered by Lantern, know more about this project.

Google Ads 1

Giving Assistant

Google Ads 2

Anti-censorship Tools

Life Without Walls

Click on the image to download Firefly for circumvention

Open popup

Welcome back!

CDT is a non-profit media site, and we need your support. Your contribution will help us provide more translations, breaking news, and other content you love.