The FCC's Evidence-Optional Blacklist Of Huawei Is About Protectionism, Not National Security
from the evidence-schmevidence dept
Last week we noted that Best Buy was the latest to join a growing, evidence-optional blacklisting of Huawei based on ambiguous “national security” concerns. We also noted how despite a lot of hand-wringing on certain fronts for most of this decade, nobody has been able to provide evidence that Huawei actively spies on American consumers, the justification for similar blacklisting by AT&T and Verizon earlier this year (both bosom bodies with the NSA, it probably goes without saying). Few news outlets bother to mention an 18-month investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing by Huawei.
While it’s certainly possible Huawei is embedding backdoors no security researcher has been able to ferret out, it’s just as possible that we’re engaging in good, old-fashioned vanilla protectionism dressed up as ambiguous national security concerns. As one anonymous source told the Washington Post during the last flare up of Huawei phobia, getting non-tech savvy lawmakers riled up on this subject isn’t particularly difficult:
“What happens is you get competitors who are able to gin up lawmakers who are already wound up about China,? said one Hill staffer who was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter. ?What they do is pull the string and see where the top spins.”
There’s a large contingency of folks who breathlessly profess dedication to free trade and open competition at every opportunity, yet can somehow pivot to protectionism on a dime — despite criticizing China for doing the same thing. That apparently includes the FCC, which this week announced it would be joining the evidence-optional blacklist of Huawei by banning U.S. telcos from buying Huawei gear if they take taxpayers subsidies. From a statement by FCC boss Ajit Pai issued to the media this week:
“Threats to national security posed by certain communications equipment providers are a matter of bipartisan concern. Hidden ?back doors? to our networks in routers, switches?and virtually any other type of telecommunications equipment?can provide an avenue for hostile governments to inject viruses, launch denial-of-service attacks, steal data, and more. Although the FCC alone can?t safeguard the integrity of our communications supply chain, we must and will play our part in a government- and industry-wide effort to protect the security of our networks.”
Again though, nobody has provided a shred of public evidence that Huawei routinely spies on American consumers. And the evidence that we do have routinely indicates that the United States is in no position to throw stones anyway. Edward Snowden documents revealed that not only did the NSA break into Huawei starting in 2007 to steal source code and implant its own backdoors, but that the agency also intercepted Cisco hardware en route for the same purpose. So again, the real message being sent here is that this kind of behavior is only acceptable if the United States does it.
In his statement, Pai declares that he’s solely looking out for the welfare of the American public (you know, like he did during the net neutrality repeal), and that the agency will vote on the proposal next month:
“That?s why I?m proposing to prohibit the FCC?s $8.5 billion Universal Service Fund from being used to purchase equipment or services from any company that poses a national security threat to the integrity of communications networks or their supply chains. The money in the Universal Service Fund comes from fees paid by the American people, and I believe that the FCC has the responsibility to ensure that this money is not spent on equipment or services that pose a threat to national security. On April 17, I hope that my fellow Commissioners will join me in supporting this important proposal to help protect our national security.”
But many small cable operators appear to see what this effort is really about. One Oregon cable operator told the Wall Street Journal this week that using Huawei gear saved them around $150,000 when they were trying to expand broadband into rural markets (something you’ll recall Pai insists is a priority). They appear to be well aware that this effort is about protectionism and nationalism, not national security:
“?Our margins are pretty thin,? Mr. Franell said. ?If you start dictating what kind of equipment I can use, it tips the scales.? He said he thinks the new legislation making the rounds in Washington is more likely driven by nationalism and protectionism than by real concerns about hacking and spying. ?I?m not going to rework my whole business plan based off a rumor or an unsubstantiated allegation,? he said.
Again, there’s an ocean of ways China can (and does) spy on the United States without Huawei’s help. Chinese hardware is literally everywhere, including in many of the products manufactured by U.S. companies. And given the fact that we’re happily connecting security-optional internet of things devices to home and business networks like it’s going out of fashion, there’s ample opportunities to spy on Americans — with Americans’ oblivious enthusiasm.
U.S. networking and smartphone manufacturers are particularly afraid of losing ground to China in the race to deploy faster fifth-generation (5G) networks and handsets. But instead of competing, we’re apparently going to double down on the argument that Huawei (and other Chinese network vendors) are rampant national security threats, while ignoring we routinely engage in the same or worse behavior (except with proof). It’s protectionism plain and simple, but if you wave your hands hysterically and patriotically enough, nobody (including the American tech press) will apparently call you on it.