Telecoms & IT

War in 5G

Geopolitics and the Internet

The countries where 5G is set to roll out first do not trust each other, but trust is key to the efficient function of any market.

Read the first part here.

To understand the predicament telecoms firms face, it’s helpful to look at the history of the early Internet.

Rewiring, or rather “rewirelessing,” the Internet of 2019 is far more complex a political prospect than the early establishment and adoption of the technology in the 1990s.

With the introduction of fiber optics, broadband communication has become more and more standard since then.

But even that was enormously complicated, with countless public-private partnerships governed by freshly written regulations that vary from country to country, or even street to street, as when cell-tower permitting and placement was a new task for business and government.

So why is the task so much more complex than earlier rollouts of telecommunications technology?

Part of it has to do with the technical specifications. The shorter range of 5G signals plays a part, but so does the far more crowded political landscape of the Internet in 2019 compared to 1999, or even 2009. While US and European countries and companies built and laid out the early Internet’s architecture as allies, three decades of history have transpired since then that have shown telecommunications technology to be a potential venue for sabotage, surveillance, and subterfuge against both infrastructure and even political processes.

To conduct these operations, states utilize civilian platforms and pathways that form the body of the Internet as we know it. But states have shown no hesitation in using civilian technology to achieve their larger geostrategic goals in cyberspace.

Businesses should not have to bear the burden of being pushed into military service.

Immediate, significant action on cyber war rules seems unlikely.

According to the New York Times, the world’s biggest cyberpowers, China, the US, Israel, Iran, North Korea, and Russia refused to sign on to a non-binding pledge promoted in 2018 by French President Emmanuel Macron, The Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace, which aims “to support to an open, secure, stable, accessible, and peaceful cyberspace.”

Trust is key to the efficient function of any market. The countries where 5G is set to roll out first do not trust each other, and even the leaders of the United States and European Union are more wary of each than any time in living memory. The US and China are embroiled in a trade war that shows no signs of going away, and which led the US to impose restrictions on Chinese-made Huawei products for reasons of “national security.”

The diplomatic dispute over Huawei is a microcosm of the larger conundrum that 5G faces as the new standard for wireless communication. If countries do not trust each other’s technology brands, where does that leave businesses that rely on an international market for technology?

While the products tech companies sell are not designed to harm, it is best never to underestimate human resourcefulness in turning everyday items into weapons.

And that includes governments meddling with forces of code they cannot comprehend.

While China faces sharp rebuke and suspicion from Western capitals for treating its own telecoms companies as witting or unwitting agents of its foreign policy, the US also exploits its own civilian tech sector as an avenue for attacks online.

Why should the business leaders trust Washington over Beijing as the legitimate cyber hegemon, when there aren’t even rules to determine right from wrong in cyberspace? Business flourishes best when there are clear terms to transactions.

None of the world’s emerging or established cyberpowers have given the world a reason to trust one more than the other.

Growth economies in particular may have to resign themselves to the possibility of foreign capitals eavesdropping or remotely sabotaging their technology infrastructure, just as a cost of doing business. But that is not a reasonable cost to ask civilians to bear.

As we have written previously regarding AI, these are problems that cannot be solved by individual companies or countries on their own. The deployment of this technology in the multipolar world of cyberspace demands international agreements and standards that can protect civilians, and civilian businesses, from getting caught in the cybercrossfire.

The pact would require states to pledge not to use civilian telecommunications technology as a platform for military offensives or espionage. Without such a pact, the wider 5G project will never realize its full potential, becoming fractured along geopolitical lines.

Tech companies can consider supporting such rules as an act of charity, if they choose, but the ultimate benefit will go to their shareholders.

Shareholders, including activist institutional shareholders, will choose to put their money in companies that play by the rules.

That doesn’t require any world-saving sacrifice from shareholders either, but simply a recognition that companies engaged in risky, questionable behavior at the behest of governments are opening themselves up to insurance and reputational risk, even if the board does not endorse or condone becoming an accomplice to a government’s political or military goals.

Facebook, for instance, could not have told shareholders at its IPO in 2012 that by 2019 it would be facing regulatory scrutiny for not doing enough to protect US voters from Russian disinformation, or even that such a problem was possible.

But it is not just Russian social media hijinks that American companies have to worry about. Microsoft found out the hard way that even being a prominent US firm would not stop the US government from building cyberweapons to exploit Windows, its valuable intellectual property.

Federal regulators in the US are outraged that Facebook either won’t crack down on misinformation undermining liberal democracy, or that it somehow muffles conservative voices by algorithm.

But these political upheavals orchestrated by social media meddling are merely symptoms of a lawlessness in cyberspace. No congressional hearing or even the breakup of Facebook will solve a problem that needs an international response.

The tech sector endorsing a diplomatic convention on cyberwar will not spell the end of cyberattacks or malicious hacking, but it will give public-private partnerships a language to talk about right and wrong. That is a language that still needs to be invented, but it is better to start thinking about the political philosophy of 5G before its rollout.

Unfortunately, as was the case with the second Geneva Convention of 1929 following WWI more than a decade earlier, it may mean only a catastrophic cyberconflict can convince capitals of the necessity of laws to protect civilians from its worst ravages.

Business leaders around the world, many of them civilians, too, have an opportunity in 2019 to help write rules to make sure that catastrophe never occurs.

The grand dream behind the Internet, at its founding, was to be a free forum for information and exchange of technological know-how across cultures, languages, and religions. While this is true, the Internet, just like the human voice box, has the power to unite and divide, inform and confuse, teach and brainwash. The Internet is only as good as we are, and the more we spend our waking hours attached to it mentally and psychically, the more we need to decide what right and wrong mean in this brave new, electromagnetic world.

The development of 5G provides leaders with that opportunity; let’s hope they do not waste it.

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