from the do-as-I-say,-not-as-I-do dept
You might recall that the FCC under both Trump and Biden has made a big deal about forcing U.S. telecoms to rip out Huawei gear from their networks, under the allegation that the gear is used to spy on Americans. You’re to ignore, of course, that the United States spies on everyone, constantly.
The U.S. government has never really provided clear public evidence of Huawei gear being used to spy on Americans at any real scale, we’ve just all assumed regulators and lawmakers must be seeing something we’re not. And that this truly is about national security, and not, say, just about giving U.S.-based network vendors a big revenue boost under the guise of national security.
So in 2020, the FCC announced it would also be banning companies that take subsidies from including Huawei or ZTE equipment in their networks. This was of particular concern to smaller telecom operators, who had long leveraged the lower cost of this equipment to reduce costs.
And while the FCC stated it would originally help smaller telecoms pay for the cost of this dramatic move, it’s now announcing that it can only cover about 40 percent of “rip and replace” costs at this time:
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has reviewed all the applications for the Huawei and ZTE rip and replace program and determined there is a $3.08 billion shortfall. Therefore, the initial reimbursements will only pay eligible service providers about 39.5% of their rip and replace costs.
Small and mid-sized carriers made it clear for years that they would have to eat the higher costs of network components, since companies like Ericsson, Nokia, and Cisco wouldn’t match Huawei’s pricing. These higher costs will in turn be directly passed on to consumers in both the U.S. and Canada, who already pay sky-high prices due to limited competition and consolidation.
It’s not clear if the FCC has much of an answer to that end of the equation, since it already does a piss poor job protecting U.S. consumers from monopoly harm. It also has a pretty poor track record of actually following through on where subsidies go, which opens the door to additional fraud.
I’m not keen on defending China given the government’s horrific human rights abuses. And, it’s certainly possible that the Chinese government mandates that Chinese-based telecom equipment manufacturers include covert backdoors into U.S. network hardware.
There have been key instances where specific, sophisticated targeted exploitation of Huawei gear has been seen in countries like Australia. And Huawei certainly isn’t any sort of angel, having been caught helping African governments spy on political opponents and journalists. Huawei, like most telecom giants (see: AT&T) is a government-pampered ethical mess.
All of that said, U.S. companies like Cisco, Oracle, and others have a pretty long history of drumming up DC hysteria on this front in a bid to simply undermine lower-cost competitors they don’t want to compete with. Given the xenophobia of many lawmakers, this really isn’t hard. So it’s kind of important that, if the U.S. takes this path, it’s transparent about evidence and claims, which hasn’t happened.
The other problem, of course, is hypocrisy. The U.S. is notorious for wanting to install backdoors in absolutely everything, be it Cisco hardware or Huawei hardware. The U.S. has done a hell of a job undermining its own credibility here, so it’s not as if skepticism wasn’t warranted. Many of the claims of “Huawei backdoors” have also, at times, proven to be little more than telnet interfaces.
There’s also the problem of generalized inconsistency. We become easily obsessed about singular threats (Tiktok! Huawei!) while doing very little about broader privacy and security issues, such as the wholesale lack of accountability and transparency in adtech, the privacy and security dumpster fire that is the internet of things, or very real telecom vulnerabilities in satellite and wireless networks.
None of this nuance is of particular interest of a U.S. tech press that’s generally blind to its own patriotic bias, and not particularly keyed into the way corruption worms its way into this discussion. It’s hard for them to both tread a line that cares about privacy and national security, while still clarifying that the U.S. policymakers, very frequently, couldn’t care less about privacy and national security.
As a result the coverage tends to be a comically simplistic “U.S. good” and “China bad” press narrative when nobody in this conversation has proven themselves to be particularly trustworthy.
So again, I don’t want to defend China. It’s very possible they do spy on everyone, constantly, globally, just like the U.S. does. Which is and has always been a bad thing. But the corruption, inconsistency, hypocrisy, and lack of transparency in U.S. efforts to “combat the Chinese threat” does raise an eyebrow if you’re actually paying objective attention.