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As the Trump administration actively pursues the “splinternet”, Australia is being wedged (again) between its geography and its politics. In the real world, Australia will be where it’s always been. But in the virtual world, it risks being moored somewhere off the coast of California.

The “splinternet” is essentially the regional and national fragmentation of the once global, open internet. The US is pushing for a “clean” internet that excludes Chinese apps and infrastructure like TikTok and WeChat.

About 1.6 million Australians (mainly female, mainly young) use TikTok, and approximately 1.5 million use WeChat (it’s all but ubiquitous in the Chinese diaspora). During the 2019 federal election, both major parties advertised on WeChat to reach Chinese-Australian voters. 

On August 5, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared the administration’s goal of a “clean” internet (carrier, store, apps, cloud and cable). He said that more than 30 countries were on board, and he nominated Australia’s two big telcos as compliant. That same night, Trump released two executive orders banning dealings (including advertising) with any subsidiaries of the apps’ parent companies, ByteDance and Tencent, from mid-September.

Australia has already acted on two of the five Pompeo “cleans”. In August 2018, the then-Turnbull government banned China’s Huawei and ZTE from participating in building Australia’s 5G network. The Chinese companies were then — probably still are — leaders in the technology.

“Clean carrier”: ticked.

The month before, Australia signed off on the Coral Sea Cable System, linking Australia, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. This supplanted an earlier agreement the Solomon Islands had reached with Huawei.

“Clean cable”: ticked.

In July this year, the Nine mastheads reported that the Morrison government was reviewing TikTok and WeChat on security and privacy grounds. Expect that review to lead to a ban (“Clean apps”: tick) — probably sometime before the US ban takes effect.

Australian engagement in the US push was reflected in the commitments Australia signed on to in last month’s Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) communique. Yes, last month: this meeting was important enough for Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds to travel to Washington during the pandemic.

The joint statement released from the July 28 meeting was targeted at China. Nine out of 12 paragraphs under the heading “Indo-Pacific Security” were aimed, either explicitly or implicitly, at China.

This clearly laid out US expectations of Australia’s role. Specifically:

[The United States and Australia] reaffirmed that allowing high-risk vendors that are subject to extrajudicial directions from a foreign government to supply 5G network equipment or build telecommunications cables creates unacceptable risks to national security, critical infrastructure, and privacy.

The justification for the cleansing is that the Chinese-owned services collect private data and are required to report to Chinese authorities. It’s not clear how different this data is from what US platforms collect.

Of course, the US “clean internet” is not the first to attempt to splinter the internet. There’s China’s “Great Firewall” which blocks much of Western media, particularly anything about Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen (the three Ts) — and now also Uyghurs and Hong Kong. The major US tech platforms, Facebook and Google, are also banned. 

India has become notorious for its swift resort to regional internet shutdowns, with 55 imposed already this year, and a year-long effective ban in the Kashmir Valley. It recently banned WeChat and TikTok along with about 100 other Chinese-made apps. India’s The Wire estimates that about half of all Indians (about 600 million people) had downloaded TikTok and the ban “deprived users of entertainment, a budding alternative media source, and in many cases income”.

The US ban is likely to lead to further consolidation in big tech, with Facebook’s Reels (a knock-off through Instagram) announced on the same day as Pompeo’s five-pronged “clean”. It’s been speculated that Microsoft will buy the US TikTok. 

The ban on WeChat will weaken e-commerce with China and, perhaps, with other countries that lean into the Chinese version of the internet. It’s everything Facebook wants to be — an integrated messaging, social media and e-commerce platform — used throughout China and the greater Chinese world.

Australia once sold itself as a bridge to Asia. Now, the Australian government seems keener to shelter on the American side of the new virtual walls the US is building.

Is Australia right to side with the US in the fight against Chinese tech companies? And would you support a ban on TikTok? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say section.”

Peter Fray

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