It's Time for Big Tech to Take a Stand Against China | Opinion

We are in a digital arms race with China. Its state-sponsored telecommunications companies—Huawei and ZTE—own more than half of all global 5G buildout. Chinese telecoms are even partnering with Russian state-owned telecoms to increase their digital footprint and enhance their tech. China then uses this influence to help other autocratic nations, from Cuba to Burundi, manage their networks and oppress their citizenry.

Every part of the internet ecosystem is in play. China's ruling party, the Chinese Communist Party, sees unfettered speech on the internet as a threat to its culture and form of governance. Chinese-based search engines like Baidu have become a de facto propaganda tool to censor "objectionable" content, whether it be about workers' rights, the plight of the Uyghurs or even the concept of free speech. The party controls what its citizens see on social media, even outside its borders. China sees the internet as a new digital warfront.

And China has first-mover advantage. Commissioner Geoffrey Starks of the Federal Communications Commission reported that one Chinese telecom "misrouted large amounts of communications from the United States for many years, including at least 10 incidents, sometimes involving U.S. government traffic." The Chinese-based organization Nickel—which strikes targets misaligned with China's geopolitical interests—used at least 42 websites to hack U.S. government agencies, think tanks and human rights groups to gather information. In short, we are under attack.

The good news is that the Biden administration recognizes this threat and has made thwarting it a national priority. Diplomatically, the boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics sends a clear message to China that the U.S. supports the Chinese people's fight for liberty and acknowledges the victims of the genocides happening on President Xi Jinping's watch.

President Joe Biden is also taking action. The State Department recently announced a partnership with Japan and Australia to build a new undersea cable in East Micronesia. The president recently signed the bipartisan Secure Equipment Act of 2021, requiring the FCC to stop authorizing equipment purchases from vendors that are a national security threat, like Huawei and ZTE. The Federal Communications Commission banned several Chinese telecoms from participating in the American communications market. And earlier this year, the Commerce Department tightened the Trump administration's export ban, denying Beijing—and thus Huawei and ZTE—vital 5G components.

President Biden is expending political capital at home and abroad to take China on. And he's doing so with bipartisan support.

Joe Biden Xi Jinping
US President Joe Biden meets with China's President Xi Jinping during a virtual summit from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, November 15, 2021. MANDEL NGAN / AFP/Getty Images

So why are some Big Tech companies undermining his work?

Let's start with the most recent example. While President Biden was bringing Chinese atrocities to light by boycotting the Beijing Olympics, former Olympian and tennis star Peng Shuai accused a senior party official of rape. Beijing's response was swift and calculated—penalizing social media platform Weibo for allowing the "forbidden" content to be posted and sweeping the allegations off of the internet. One surprising partner in this? Google's YouTube, which demonetized videos reporting on Peng's disappearance after the allegations became public.

This isn't the first time that Big Tech has favored Chinese censorship over free speech. In 2019, Twitter took down nearly 100 accounts that celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square demonstration. In 2020, YouTube automatically deleted comments that criticized the Chinese Communist Party (after an uproar, Google claimed those deletions were simply a mistake—but one that targeted specific critical comments of one party in one government on Earth).

Even Apple, which professes to put user privacy above all else in the United States, has agreed to censorship requests in China. Leveraging its monopoly on what apps can be used on an iPhone, Apple earlier this year removed a popular app for reading Islamic texts after requests from Chinese officials. The company also agreed to give the Chinese Communist Party a back channel to all Apple devices located on the mainland so it could take down apps that promote anti-CCP narratives, including those celebrating the Tiananmen Square demonstration and calling for independence for Tibet and Taiwan.

If China had its way, its censorship practices would be the international standard for the entire internet economy.

President Biden, like his predecessor, has taken a stand against the Chinese Communist Party. He recognizes that the first step to stopping any bully is to start saying no. And he recognizes that real freedom means allowing each individual to make that same choice.

So the question remains: How long will Big Tech continue to kowtow to China?

Joel Thayer is President of the Digital Progress Institute and an attorney based in Washington, D.C. The Digital Progress Institute is a D.C. non-profit seeking to bridge the policy divide between telecom and tech through bipartisan consensus.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.