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Is Privacy Losing in US-China Fight for Control Over Data?

By Charles McDermid

Influence on global data-security standards has emerged as yet another Big Power battleground, with the United States and China promoting rival campaigns that are heavy on geopolitical posturing — but light on details about laws, enforcement and effect. 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in August unveiled the “Clean Network” program to safeguard “sensitive information from aggressive intrusions by malign actors, such as the Chinese Communist Party.”

“Clean Network” would safeguard “sensitive information from aggressive intrusions by malign actors.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

He described the China-based apps TikTok and WeChat as “significant threats to the personal data of American citizens” and proposed certain bans on Chinese telecoms, cloud-service companies, smartphone makers and undersea cables. 

No Time For ‘Bullying’

But Beijing quickly hit back, with Foreign Minister Wang Yi announcing the “Global Initiative on Data Security.”

The plan called on the world to “approach data-security with an objective and rational attitude, and maintain an open, secure and stable global supply chain,” while taking a few swipes at the Trump administration.

Wang, speaking at a video conference last month, said: “A certain country keeps making groundless accusations against others in the name of a ‘clean’ network and uses security as a pretext to prey on enterprises of other countries that have a competitive edge.

“Such blatant acts of bullying must be opposed and rejected.”

“Such blatant acts of bullying must be opposed and rejected.”

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

Tough talk aside, neither sweeping plan offered a time frame for implementation or suggested what laws might be needed for enforcement. Observers described the initiatives as rhetorical ploys to further divide the internet; critics have charged hypocrisy on both sides.

Right Idea, Wrong Method

Tom Uren, senior analyst at the International Cyber Policy Centre for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said Washington’s “Clean Network” addressed issues that are “real, important and under-appreciated,” but did so in a way that could undercut its effectiveness. 

“It will achieve some improvements — but mostly by force and sheer bloody-mindedness, rather than by convincing people that it is a good idea,” Uren told Digital Privacy News. 

“It does show the (People’s Republic of China) that there is a direct economic cost to their cyber espionage activities, so it might be effective as a form of deterrence.

“It will achieve some improvements — but mostly by force and sheer bloody-mindedness.”

Tom Uren, Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

“I think it is a way to twist the arm of partner countries,” Uren added. “If the Trump administration is reelected, this kind of aggressive approach will continue.” 

No Legal Mechanisms

Emmanuel Pernot-Leplay, a researcher in data-protection law at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, said Clean Network did not have the legal rules necessary for enforcement.

Instead, “it participates in reinforcing the idea worldwide that Chinese tech companies shouldn’t be trusted — and this alone may hurt them.” 

He said China’s initiative was meant to “show it understands the concerns of the U.S. on major cyber issues,” but it also lacked the laws to change anything.

“Unfortunately, these initiatives are vague, and it’s unclear how they’ll be implemented,” Pernot-Leplay told Digital Privacy News. “The goal here seems more political and diplomatic than effective data-protection.

“These initiatives are vague, and it’s unclear how they’ll be implemented.”

Emmanuel Pernot-Leplay, Tilburg University.

“It is part of the restless debate around national security and cyber risks, which may eventually give birth to binding rules and international norms,” he said.

‘Dilemma and Tension’  

If the dispute intensifies, it could force some countries to take sides, said Natalie Pang, senior lecturer in the communications and new-media department at the National University of Singapore. 

“It also amplifies the dilemma and tension that smaller nations … have to confront.”

Natalie Pang, National University of Singapore.

“I think there are positives in terms of advocating clearer data-protection rules — but I see geopolitics in this as well, with the internet developing as a clear division between U.S. and China,” she said.

“It also amplifies the dilemma and tension that smaller nations — the rest of the world — have to confront: Would they have to choose one over the other, and how would they choose?”

Charles McDermid is a writer in Asia.

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