US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says he wants a “clean” Internet.
What he means by this is that he wants to remove Chinese influence and Chinese companies from the Internet in the United States.
But critics believe this will reinforce a worrying move towards dismantling the global internet.
The so-called “splinternet” is generally used when it comes to China and, more recently, Russia.
The idea is that there is nothing inherent or preordained about the internet being global.
For governments that want to control what people see on the internet, it makes sense to take ownership.
The Great Firewall of China is the best example of a nation erecting the equivalent of a wall on the Internet. You won’t find a Google or Facebook search engine in China.
What people didn’t expect was that the United States could follow China’s lead.
Yet critics believe this is the corollary of Pompeo’s Thursday statement.
Mr. Pompeo said he wanted to remove “untrusted” applications from US mobile app stores.
“Apps from the People’s Republic of China threaten our privacy, proliferate viruses and spread propaganda and disinformation,” he said.
The first question that came to my mind was: what are the Chinese apps that Mr. Pompeo trusts? The assumption is that it is talking about ALL Chinese apps.
“It’s shocking,” says Alan Woodward, a security expert at the University of Surrey. “This is the balkanization of the Internet that is happening before our eyes.
“The US government has long criticized Russia, Iran … and now we see Americans doing the same thing.”
It might be a slight exaggeration. The reasons for “cleansing” Pompeo’s US network of Chinese companies are very different from the authoritarian government’s desire to control what is said online.
But it is true that if Mr. Pompeo were to follow this path, he would reverse decades of US cyber policy.
If there is one country that has advocated a free Internet based on the constitutional principles of free speech, it is America.
However, President Donald Trump’s administration has taken a different approach, partly due to legitimate security concerns raised by some Chinese companies operating in the United States.
Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former chief security officer, told me that the much-quoted TikTok was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of Chinese apps to worry about.
“TikTok isn’t even in my top 10,” he told me.
The app that Mr. Stamos suggests the US should be more cautious of is Tencent’s WeChat.
“WeChat is one of the most popular messaging apps in the world … people run businesses on We Chat, they have incredibly sensitive information.”
Mr. Pompeo also named WeChat as a potential future target.
It’s hard not to see it through the prism of the US election in November. Trump’s anti-China rhetoric is not limited to technology.
Politics or posture?
So is this a political position or just a posture?
Mr. Trump could obviously lose in November as well. Democrats would likely take a more moderate stance on Chinese technology.
But, as it stands, Trump’s view of the internet in the United States – an internet mostly free from China – makes it a much more divided place.
The great irony is that the Internet would look a lot more like China’s vision.
Watch TikTok itself. If Microsoft does it from the US arm, there will be three TikToks.
A TikTok in China (called Douyin). A rest of the TikTok world. It is a TikTok in the United States.
Could it be a model for the future of the Internet?