Seen as lagging behind technologically, they were lousy with copycat services, unable to compete with Silicon Valley due to censorship and government interference.
While the success of China’s own technology giants has done much to put this attitude to bed, a true line was drawn this week. Russia and China are now moving forward with the next generation of internet technology, and this time it is the US that is at risk of being left behind.
At the heart of this divide is the Chinese firm Huawei, the world’s biggest telecom equipment supplier and undisputed leader in 5G networking. Washington has banned Huawei from any involvement in American 5G networks and threatened to cut it off from US software and components needed for its smartphone and network equipment businesses.
The US has also been urging allies to restrict or ban the use of Huawei equipment in their 5G networks, warning that Beijing could use the sensitive data infrastructure for spying. Huawei has repeatedly denied that any of its products pose a national security risk.
Whether to buy from Huawei or not is increasingly becoming a political litmus test, one that threatens to exacerbate the bifurcation of the global internet into separate spheres, and hasten the demise of the open, truly worldwide web as we know it.
Those that choose to avoid Huawei also risk falling behind as the world moves towards the next stage of internet and communications technology.
On Wednesday, Huawei signed a deal with Russia’s largest telecoms operator MTS to develop 5G technologies and launch a fifth-generation network in Russia within the next year.
It comes as China approved its first batch of 5G licensing for commercial use, unveiling, in the words of state media, “a new era for the telecom industry.” Huawei will be deeply involved in that effort, adding to the more than 45 commercial 5G contracts the firm has signed in 30 countries around the world.
That isn’t as many as it should have, however. Finland’s Nokia signed 12 new 5G contracts in the last two months, compared to just three for Huawei. That’s despite Huawei being considered by many in the industry to be the world leader when it comes to 5G, and able to undercut its rivals considerably on pricing.
The Shenzhen-based firm has found itself on the front line of the escalating trade war between the US and China. One of its top executives has been detained in Canada on US charges, its been locked out of the US market, and Washington has put increasing pressure on allies to take action against the firm as well.
As countries continue to move ahead with developing their 5G networks — which will provide faster speeds, faster connections and faster access to the cloud, empowering technologies such as self-driving cars and smart cities — a divide is growing.
On one side, there are allies of Beijing who have no problem with Huawei, with Russia only the latest major example. On the other there is Washington and a handful of its closest allies, who have vowed to shut the Chinese firm out.
In the middle, however, remain a host of countries, most of which are traditionally closer to the US than China but are unwilling to incur the delays and extra cost to building their 5G networks that banning Huawei from playing a role would create. The US is already lagging behind China when it comes to 5G, and blocking the market leader will do nothing to help narrow that gap.
That’s not to say the US can’t catch up — and eventually even overtake China — but it will likely be a struggle.
The worst case scenario for many observers is that this divide solidifies, forcing governments to choose sides and setting up a next generation internet split between China and the US, something which could have major ramifications beyond which telecoms firm provides network equipment.
“Having mutually exclusive technological spheres doesn’t simply mean supply chains will mirror each other on different continents,” technology analyst Tim Culpan wrote recently. “Rather, for countries around the world, it means that every business and investment decision becomes a political one.”
The vision of the internet as an open and shared platform in which technologies and standards cross borders and develop in a globalized fashion is one that has always been more of a guiding light than an actual reality.
But in recent years, the tensions between how the internet was conceived and portrayed, and how it actually exists, have only grown. As the authors of a report for the Center for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) wrote recently, the open web is “a fragile and contingent construction of hardware, software, standards and databases, governed by a wide range of private and public actors whose behavior is constrained only by voluntary protocols.”
That fragility has only become more apparent. Led by China, more and more countries are turning against the principle of the open internet, adopting Beijing’s doctrine of cyber sovereignty, in which governments tightly guard the borders of their own internets, boosting their own tech firms and forcing international competitors to localize their data and make it available to domestic security agencies.
This has had major effects on global internet freedom, as Chinese-style censorship and surveillance spreads around the world, and Beijing has moved to reduce international protections for online speech and organization.
Last year, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt added his voice to those warning of a division, in which the world would be split between “a Chinese-led internet and a non-Chinese internet led by America.”
For a long time, this trend has been driven by Beijing, which has happily exported the technology and expertise to aid countries in building their own tightly controlled internets, or in the case of Russia, lock down a once free and open one.
With its campaign against Huawei, however, Washington has now begun accelerating this division as well.
This could have effects beyond which company builds a given 5G network, or how censored domestic internets are. The bifurcation of the internet into two or more spheres could also see different standards and regulations develop — think Android vs iOS but far more extreme — making it more difficult to communicate internationally or move between systems.
Lightning-fast 5G networks were predicted to bring us ever closer. The Huawei divide could mean they end up pushing us apart.