Can we challenge US internet monopoly?
by Dan Morgan, Chile
This is getting serious. Now it’s affecting me directly, and also everyone else. The US trade war with China was ratcheted up several notches with Trump’s threat of a tech war. Huawei is the second biggest smartphone maker globally, and doing well here in Chile. (1) So, when Trump declared war on Huawei, we all had to decide how to react. Do we accept US domination of telecoms and the internet? Is US technology to be the only one available? Trump seems to have backed down for now, aware of the damage this war would do to US tech companies, apart from other considerations. My question remains – does the domination of US tech companies represent a problem or danger, not just commercially but in terms of avoiding control by an oligopoly and for data security?
CHINA AND HUAWEI
I place no trust in China. I really do not know whether its capitalist road of development will turn into full-blown imperialism, using that word in a Marxist sense. We are seeing export of capital, one of the key features of imperialism, in Chile this is in mining and possibly railways. There is a new ‘scramble for Africa’, its land and natural resources, with China playing a notable role. On the other hand, China’s development is clearly different from the modern capitalist norm, and its involvement in other countries is based on mutually beneficial development and trade. It has one military base outside China, compared with the USA’s 800. The state plays a major role and President Xi boasts of the big reduction in poverty which itself goes against the neoliberal trend. The aims of their last Party Congress hinted at something better than ‘normal’ capitalism, at least. Does anyone know what ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’ really means? Whatever the real nature of China’s state, now and for the future, it is a competitor with US imperialism, and therefore a potential ally for states that challenge US domination. Along with Russia it is helping Venezuela, for example, in its struggle to maintain independence.
Following the same logic, it must be right for socialists and others who aspire to independence from US corporations to support alternative companies in the sphere of technology. I will continue to have a Huawei phone, and use whatever software it develops as an alternative to Google’s monopoly. Spying by Huawei? It’s enough to make a cat laugh. Everything that passes through Google, Facebook, Microsoft or Amazon systems must go through the huge (enormous, gigantic) memory stacks in Utah that belong to the US National Security Agency. The US state already knows more about us than we ourselves know (for people who use the internet, that is). Evidence for Huawei spying? Nil.
AN INDEPENDENT INTERNET?
The furore raised about possibly losing the use of Google software raises important questions. I try to minimise my dependence on US monopoly systems, not support them commercially and also to try and reduce their access to my electronic activity. I use open source software when possible. For example, I use Ubuntu (a form of Linux) instead of Windows – I find it easier to use and practical. It comes with Libre Office(free) instead of Office. It can handle .docx and .xlsx files with no problems. I have known researchers who found Libre Office limited for advanced graphics and analysis, but for most people it has no disadvantages and is easy to use. I much prefer it to recent versions of Office. My Internet browser is Mozilla Firefox (also open) and there are other options. The search engine I use now is DuckDuckGo (funny name, stores no personal data, no advertising) not Google. Another alternative is Ecosia – based in Germany, clicks on its adverts generate revenue which has led to 50 million trees being planted. There are secure alternatives to gmail also. My Huawei phone, however, came with Google installed and, of course, Facebook and WhatsApp are US companies. Huawei will produce an alternative to Android but connection to Facebook and WhatsApp will be important, as long as most people continue to use those systems.
Facebook is already censoring posts from people I know, as well as organisations critical of Israel. It also shows posts in a variable rather than chronological order, does not enable threads on topics and tells me lies such as that a political friend ‘likes’ the campaign of a pro-fascist politician. It was threatened that new Huawei phones will not be able to use it. Good - if it means people use alternatives! They exist. On a WhatsApp group here, a member in Argentina objected to the use of Facebook for photos, and suggested Diaspora. This is an open source alternative to Facebook with some attractive features. Affinity groups seem to be well organised. Does it make data spying impossible? I’m not sure but it is certainly better than Facebook, and possibly secure. Of course, the big problem is convincing people you want to communicate with to use it.
There are several options to use instead of WhatsApp. All use encryption and some do not even require personal identification such as a phone number. Telegram, a Russian system, is one, and Threema, based in Switzerland, another. So there are alternatives to many dominant internet software systems. Activists who want to change our political system, or who just challenge aspects of neoliberal politics, would do well to consider weaning themselves off Google, Facebook and WhatsApp, among others. Big Brother is watching us now, and this can be stopped or at least greatly reduced.
(1) Phone communication in Chile was dominated by three oligopolist companies until four years ago. No real competition. A UK based company did some market research three years ago and found bad service and high prices. They came in and have cleaned up – 5 million customers now in a population of 17 million! They are the only company to offer 4G locally, so we had to buy Huawei phones to get any decent reception, the best phones available at a reasonable price.