Yana Toom: Bad Huawei and good America


If Estonia is truly independent, we need to be careful not only of Chinese technology but also that of our main NATO ally the United States, MEP Yana Toom writes.

The Riigikogu passed the so-called Huawei bill on May 12. We are talking about two modest amendments to the Electronic Communications Act. The amendments are modest, while their consequences are serious – ISPs can be told by the government they cannot use network equipment and support offered by the "wrong companies."

The battle against "you know who"

The amendments were passed with exceptional concord: 83 votes for and just four against. The latter were those of Oudekki Loone, Andrei Korobeinik, Erki Savisaar and Valdo Randpere. Loone proceeded on the conviction that Estonia should not pick sides in a foreign trade war, while what the remaining opposers have in common (as Savisaar and Korobeinik belong to the coalition Center Party and Randpere to opposition Reform Party) is extensive IT sector experience and an understanding of what is admissible in the field and what is not.

The fact Huawei is not mentioned in the law fools no one. Its explanatory memo makes it clear who these amendments are targeting. The Riigikogu National Defense Committee directly admits that "the aim is to make sure Estonian IT infrastructure is secure and trustworthy both for ourselves and in the eyes of allies," while "undemocratic countries" with ambitions and capacity to conduct cyberattacks and that have sway over companies in their jurisdiction should be kept away from 5G.

It's like the Russian anecdote where the bear, wolf, fox and rabbit sit down to play cards and the bear warns: "This is a gentlemen's game! Anyone who cheats will be smacked over their red furry head!"

Games against an anonymous adversary are peculiar, especially in a democracy. Everyone knows we're talking about Huawei and China, while no one dares admit it.

I'm reminded of a farce from early April when a letter signed by several EU member states and clearly aimed at Hungary condemned attempts to limit democracy. However, because the bashful document failed to mention Hungary, its premier Viktor Orban also signed, thus adding to his reputation as a troll. The moral of the story, however, is a simple one: if you have someone in mind, come out and say it.

We could see similar avoidance tactics this fall when Estonia and USA agreed on joint positions regarding 5G communications. The Estonian press promptly reported that the joint statement by Prime Minister Jüri Ratas and Vice President Mike Pence aims to effectively block Huawei, with the company expressing its concerns too.

It later turned out that the Chinese corporation is not mentioned in the text of the statement nor does it include any specific obligations. If one discounts such minor details as the two aforementioned amendments. This means that the press was right – the statement was aimed against Huawei. It would be difficult to imagine our main NATO ally USA distrusting American contractors.

When the good guys are no better than the bad guys

What is wrong with this picture? If only that the world is not made up of NATO allies and undemocratic countries. Just two weeks after the U.S.-Estonian joint statement, Angela Merkel urged the EU to protect digital data… from the USA. From Microsoft, Amazon and Google cloud services.

The German chancellor spoke of Europe not depending on America and Europeans needing digital sovereignty. This also concerns 5G: French President Emmanuel Macron said so directly in an interview to The Economist.

Next, the Financial Times wrote about how British websites trade in delicate personal data of patients. The world then learned Google is using the health data of U.S. residents. While everything is above board, legally speaking, the Americans were left anxious. For some reason.

Huawei is accused of attempting to use 5G in order to put in place a global surveillance scheme, violate our privacy, collect data, manipulate networks, deny undesirable countries software updates etc.

None of it is good. However, so far, the only victim is Huawei itself, finding itself a target of a trade and information war. America's fight against Huawei is like a soap opera where the company is blacklisted one day only to be given all the necessary licenses the next, kept off the market and allowed back in.

Everything is complicated on the information front. Postimees wrote in March (link in Estonian) that Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei has close ties to the Chinese regime as a former soldier and member of the Communist Party. Wikipedia makes no mention of Zhengfei having served as a soldier. I wonder which source is more credible. And perhaps we should not trust Estonians who have served in the Soviet army or been a member of the CPSU?

I'm not going to defend Huawei that "could be working for the Chinese authorities." But the same goes for Google and other tech behemoths. They convince us they are not up to no good. And we believe them. But why?

Should we trust a country with global ambitions

Director of the International Center for Defense and Security Sven Sakkov is convinced that 5G is too important as a technology to allow just anyone to install it. Trust between the manufacturer and society is key.

"Whether it's a free society," Sakkov said. "Whether it has free press, independent courts, political opposition and civil society to monitor all manner of misuse."

Raul Rikk, who is responsible for Estonia's cybersecurity policy (and busy convincing everyone that 5G from Huawei must not be allowed into Estonia), has likewise asked whether we can trust a country associated with cyberattacks and sporting global ambitions.

First of all, what does it mean to say "associated"? We can make all manner of associations in disputes. Secondly, are we only talking about China?

Allow me to ask a question in return. Do you trust a country sporting global ambitions the special services of which collected data on its own citizens as well as those of other countries and it is highly likely they continue to do so – in other words one that has demonstrated its global surveillance?

While I don't like the expression highly likely, we have the facts. Back in 2006, when America had already become the beacon of freedom and democracy, brother in arms in NATO and a big sister for us, a major scandal erupted there. It turned out that the world's largest ISP AT&T had taken over the entire (!) network at the behest of the National Security Agency.

How is that better than what is being suggested in connection with China and Huawei? Because the USA has democracy and China doesn't? Yes, AT&T was taken to court, but the case ended without results because the Congress gave ISPs that cooperate with the government legal protection after the fact.

That is all one needs to know about independent courts and opposition in the USA. The courts follow the law, but the opposition embraces the power as soon as the topic turns to "national interests." The U.S. has its national interests, while China has its own. End of story.

There are no democratic special services

Of course, America is more democratic than China. However, U.S. and Chinese special services are similar in what counts, namely that there is not a whiff of democracy in either. That is why democracy is not a good enough reason to blame China and Huawei while ignoring the USA and Google.

Freedom? It has long since been turned into a trademark in American context. While waging a trade war with Europe with one hand, Donald Trump is attempting to sell us expensive liquid gas in place of cheap Russian gas with the other, based on the former being "freedom gas"! What follows is a quote from the U.S. energy ministry's press release: "Increasing export capacity… is critical to spreading freedom gas throughout the world." China has not come up with anything of the sort so far.

What else separates the USA and the People's Republic of China? Civil society? A brilliant thing to have, but can U.S. citizens really influence special services? I very much doubt that. It is another matter that the 2006 scandal was picked up by the press. Yes, the press mercilessly criticizes the administration in America, even though, as evidenced by the AT&T case, it achieves very little in terms of actual effect. Criticism is more complicated in China.

Looking at the Estonian press, we see that the approach here, when it comes to international relations, is more similar to that of China. Precisely because we often talk about the Chinese threat and the Russian threat, while we almost never entertain the thought of an American threat.

America is our ally? Fine, but in that case, there is no need to pretend this is all about democracy. It is all much simpler than that: we have picked a side, we sided with the USA. We do not like Big Brother China, while we do like our Big Sister America.

I believe that Merkel and Macron have it right in the end: European Union members need to protect their independence from geopolitical sharks. And that includes our favorite star-spangled shark that wants to be the most important shark in the world. While we are already passing legislation in accordance with its wishes.

It would please me to be proven wrong and see the Electronic Communications Act used against an American company for once. But something tells me that will not happen.