What a US-China cyberwar means for the Philippines: Inquirer contributor

MANILA (PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) – The world changed on Aug 5, but very few people noticed. On that day, the US State Department detailed the “Clean Network to Safeguard America’s Assets” program, a follow-through on the John S. McCain National Defense Authorisation Act of 2019.

The initiative aims to guard Americans’ most sensitive personal and business information from “aggressive intrusions by malign actors,” specifically naming the Chinese Communist Party.

Long before this US move, the Great Firewall of China has been protecting the “Chinese internet” by requiring local internet service providers to cooperate in censorship and information gathering.

This has prevented many major US internet services, such as Facebook, Google, and Amazon from entering the Chinese market. The protectionist strategy allows China’s own internet companies, such as Baidu, Sina Weibo, Tencent QQ, WeChat, and Alibaba, to flourish.

In 2017, China issued the National Intelligence Law mandating all Chinese individuals, organisations, and institutions to assist public security and state security officials in performing national intelligence work.

Recently, updates in the Great Firewall blocked the use of strong encryption, likely the state’s latest attempt at curbing VPN use.

Over the last two decades, China has been exporting its vision of how telecommunications should be governed.

5G networks, for example, can purportedly “call home” or give the Chinese government the ability to listen in on any traffic on those networks.

So, the Clean Network program has solidified the bifurcation of the internet, or what the Internet Society calls the “splinternet,” which started with the Great Firewall of China.

The US program names countries and telcos around the world deemed compliant (“clean”) with US privacy and cybersecurity standards, a development that could impact how the internet works.

The internet was designed to take the best possible route to provide the best possible service. Now, the decision of which route to take just became political.

The Clean Network restricts the use of US technology by Chinese companies, including Huawei, whose phones have US technology such as Google Android in their cores.

To date, Huawei has been able to get an extension license from the US Commerce Department to continue using Android. But for how long? If this cyberwar intensifies, could China-brand mobile phones still carry US-run social media?

The ban extends to US networks using Chinese technology. Hence, Philippine companies and network providers who wish to continue doing business with the US might be forced to avoid Chinese products.

In the short term, this will lead to increases in costs, as Chinese network equipment manufacturers, such as Huawei and ZTE, have long dominated the market and have very little cost-effective competition.

The US also banned some Chinese applications accused of being used for spying. So if the Philippine government decides to take the US side, no more trending TikTok dance videos for Filipinos? No more League of Legends or Fortnite, games with substantial Tencent investment?

In finding a middle path for the Philippines, key questions need to be answered. Should we join the Clean Network or just allow individual companies to join? Do we have telco-neutral peering facilities and policies that encourage local ISPs to peer, to allow the creation of an interconnect/middleman ecosystem?

What regulatory requirements should we put in place considering moves that impact the compliance of applications?

The US-China cyber Cold War is rapidly escalating. As these two titans battle, the Philippines needs to tread nimbly and think strategically.

Can it be the gateway in Asia, an interconnection hub working with both giants, and position itself as a “digital Switzerland”? Or will it be a passive onlooker and end up as collateral damage in this cyberwar?

The writer is a technology professional, professor, and researcher and part of Secure Connections, a cybersecurity project of The Asia Foundation-Philippines. The paper is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 24 news media entities.

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