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BEZAWADA: US must uphold democratic values in tech race with China

Opinion Column: Traipse The Fine Line

Whether you are invested in technology or politics, the race between the United States and China over the fast-approaching 5G network is bound to impact all of us: From the way we communicate, down to our very right to freedom of self-expression and privacy.

5G is the star successor to the 4G wireless connection systems first released 10 years ago. Through extensive, billion-dollar installations of fiber-optic networks, internet transmission speeds could potentially surpass 100 times those of 4G, achieving rates of 10 gigabits per second and bandwidth allowing a full-length, high-definition movie to download in seconds. This is critical for “the internet of things,” which are items ranging from smart fridges to driverless cars to FitBits to Google Homes to dog collars, all of which require the internet to collect, send and display data: All of which are skyrocketing in demand. 

At the moment, households function on several wirelessly-connected devices. 5G “promises a radio wave-rich environment where billions of chips, sensors, cameras, appliances and electronics around us will be interconnected, pinging information back and forth,” according to Bloomberg. It is estimated that by 2024, 22 billion devices will be connected to the internet, carrying five times the amount of data in existence today with 5G networks spanning more than 40 percent of the world’s population.

The sheer possibility is spectacular, but unnerving. With the incorporation of 5G and the increasing interconnectedness of homes and lifestyles comes an influx of private, sensitive information. This poses an alarming security risk. Whoever dominates 5G technology will essentially acquire immense power over the flow of information and give the host country a significant geopolitical advantage. Not since the creation of nuclear weapons has there been technology with the potential to allow governments to wield such power. The stakes are high, the prize is clear and the race is on. At the present, U.S. and Chinese companies appear to be the top two contenders.

Chinese companies, with full backing of their government, seem to be ahead. Under normal circumstances, this could have been a healthy competition beneficial to the consumer, but the major concern is an undemocratic and authoritarian system of government. Unlike the U.S., the heart of capitalism and the free market ideal, China, headed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), is notorious for curbing freedom of speech and exercising control over its corporations and every aspect of the society. At the forefront of the Chinese drive to win the race is Huawei Technologies Co. 

More than 230 cities worldwide are already using Huawei’s 4G infrastructure or have signed up for Huawei’s 5G technology, securing Huawei $92 billion — nearly half of its annual revenue. So far, only the U.S. and Australia have banned the company’s efforts from expanding. In the wrong hands, U.S. officials said “control over 5G networks could allow an enemy to wreak mass industrial sabotage and social collapse.” 

This is not to say the U.S. is saintly when it comes to privacy issues or throwing its weight around. But at least U.S. citizens are free to vote out elected representatives and challenge their government if they perceive a threat to their freedom. Martin Thorley, a specialist on international Chinese relations, said that CCP domination of global communications would be akin to the United Kingdom’s conservative party controlling “the army, the judiciary, all newspapers, the police force, major companies, all universities.”

Huawei, when viewed as an independent corporation, is not without its good sides. Huawei originally specialized in constructing telecommunications systems for rural, isolated townships at a price 20 to 30 percent less than that of competitors. In fact, it helped approximately 24 U.S. companies expand mobile networks to some of the poorest regions in the nation. 

Huawei’s campaign is promising. It can provide lightspeed internet service at half the cost. For the U.S. to compete, its domestic carrier services must provide 5G at affordable prices. Though the services provided by U.S. networks are not stellar, the thought of using Huawei’s network and granting an authoritarian regime more sway around the world is worse. I would prefer a winner from a free market economy with open societies where human rights are valued.

So far, the President Donald J. Trump administration has proven successful on several fronts. Through peaceful, diplomatic negotiation, Japan and New Zealand have agreed to restrict Huawei technology. Moreover, Europe is reconsidering its stance on Huawei after a Polish intelligence official and a Huawei employee were arrested on grounds of colluding to spy for China. Britain, Germany, France and the Czech Republic are removing Huawei technology from their infrastructure.

I have nothing against China. In fact, if China wins the race, my phone bill would be cheaper. But I would not trade a few dollars of savings for a world that respects human rights and promotes freedom of expression. Unfortunately, the Chinese government falls in the opposite category.

Sruti Bezawada is a Rutgers Business School and School of Arts  and Sciences sophomore double majoring in marketing and communications and minoring in Japanese. Her column, “Traipse the Fine Line," runs alternate Wednesdays.


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