It is often said that the most powerful man in the world is the president of the United States of America. It’s a bit trite but probably true nonetheless, and all the more worrying when that man is Donald Trump.
Certainly Trump has demonstrated that a US president can have a serious impact on global affairs in various sectors. His approach to diplomacy has unsettled the status quo without quite destroying it, while his “America first” economic policy has put presumptions about the mechanics of global trade under intense pressure.
Most obviously, the president’s escalating trade battle with China has called into question not only a key business relationship between Beijing and Washington, but has the potential to cause financial ripples which will be felt by everyone else in the world.
The impact of Trump’s approach to tackling what he has long regarded as unfair Chinese trading practices has been given added resonance in recent days after his administration added Huawei to its “entity list”, banning the company from acquiring technology.
American government antipathy towards the world’s second biggest smartphone manufacturer is not merely about American-Chinese trade, of course. Notably, the US has raised questions about whether the Chinese firm has been straight about its business interests in Iran. Back in December, this prompted the arrest of Huawei’s senior executive Meng Wanzhou in Canada at the US authorities’ request. A host of other criminal charges have also be filed by the US Department of Justice.
Still, all of this is tied up in Trump’s broader economic strategy, seeking (in theory at least) to give American business an advantage over foreign counterparts. And by effectively forcing US-based companies not to trade with Huawei unless they have an approved licence to do so, the president gets others to do his dirty work for him.
Google’s announcement that it will no longer allow Huawei users to access its updates (effectively meaning that future Huawei smartphones will not have certain Google apps) shows how wide-reaching the implications of Trump’s recent decisions may be.
Most customers of mobile phones are not wildly interested in whether American economic isolationism is right or wrong; they just want to make sure they can get on YouTube. If they can’t, they will probably choose a different model. In the short term, that’s bad news for Huawei (although it might create an opportunity in the long run). But what about Google?
It is in the peculiar position of being both a competitor of, and supplier to, Huawei. What it will lose in revenue generated from selling access to its apps on Huawei phones might be made up in sales of its own handsets. The exact financial ramifications are hard to ascertain, but Google is not going to be made or broken by its relationship with Huawei.
Yet it does come to something when the grandmasters of the internet’s global appeal are effectively limiting access to some of the web’s most versatile and appealing platforms. True, Google has said they are doing nothing more than complying with the requirements of US law. But how does this bastion of internet freedom feel about being forced into such action?
When the seeds of the internet revolution were planted in Silicon Valley’s fertile ground all those years ago, they were nurtured by people who foresaw a world in which there would be an equalisation of knowledge. The world wide web would enjoy open access and open participation – and would open up opportunities to all-comers.
Ironically, it was in China that the libertarian dream of the internet’s early idealists came up against a metaphorical (great) wall, as the authorities sought quite successfully to wrest control of what users would see online. Now it appears that even in the internet’s birthplace it cannot be free from political meddling, as Google dances to the tune of an isolationist megalomaniac. It may be jigging under duress – but if so, where is the protest song?
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