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Why there are no winners in a tech cold war between China and the West


When China recently introduced its new national security law for Hong Kong, many predicted a turbulent future for tech and social media companies in the region. Some tech companies quickly abandoned the country while behemoths such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter paused the processing of data requests from the Hong Kong government.

Within just a few weeks, misleading Facebook posts written in Chinese began to circulate warning that changes meant that photos posted on the social media platform can now be used in court proceedings against users. Facebook quickly responded by rubbishing the claims and assured its community that it's the users who control the content and privacy of their account.  

Sleepwalking into a tech cold war

The new security law gives authorities the power to regulate online content. Anything posted on a tech platform deemed a threat to China's security must be removed when requested. A failure to comply could see company representatives facing fines of nearly $13,000 and six months in prison. For the first time, tech companies will find themselves going head to head with the infamous censorship mechanism, known as the Great Firewall.

According to Reuters, the EU is also preparing to limit technology exports to Hong Kong that may be used for repression or surveillance. For many years, Hong Kong was seen as a safe harbor for tech companies that were shut out of China. But now, that has changed as the implementation of censorship at scale becomes the norm. But what will tech companies do?

The world's biggest tech companies have all paused the processing of requests from Hong Kong government agencies. But the stance feels like a play for time rather than a solution. Presumably, many are waiting on how governments will respond to the new laws. But if they wait too long, these tech companies could stand accused of crimes against national security. 

As tensions continue to escalate, American companies will have the impossible task of keeping stakeholders at home happy while obeying the authoritarian rulers in Beijing and Hong Kong. The reality is that neither side can have it entirely their own way and the only realistic way forward is to find a compromise that helps both the East and the West navigate these turbulent digital waters together.

Is data a business asset or liability?

Data is often described as the new oil. But what was once seen as the biggest asset of a tech company could quickly be seen as its most significant liability. Tech teams need to step up and accept that with great power, there must also come great responsibility. How a company allows overseas governments to handle personal data and content is no exception.

Over the last 25 years, technology has removed traditional borders and enabled start-ups to thrive with a remote, geographically dispersed workforce. But the global pandemic is arguably making nations more insular and responsible for the building of virtual walls to keep others away, rather than uniting the global community.

It's easy to focus on the fact that Facebook has 2.4 billion users and 300 million people messaging on WhatsApp globally. But we seldom hear about how 1.4 billion people use the Chinese super-app WeChat. Rather than scrolling through several screens of apps for each task, WeChat handles mobile payments, metro tickets, and can even be used to book flights, hotels, or food shopping.

Elsewhere in China, Huawei is one of the few brands genuinely innovating in the smartphone industry and is backed by a phenomenal R&D budget of $20 billion.  Shenzhen is also a hi-tech center that claims to have brought 700 million people out of poverty as China continues to leverage emerging technologies such as 5G and AI. But at what expense?

Nobody thinks they are the bad guy

Before taking the moral high ground, we need to remember that there are more CCTV cameras in London than in Beijing and that US authorities can monitor the browsing history of its citizens without a warrant. There are many examples of how nations share more in common than they would care to admit in public around how they use technology against their people. 

Neither side will tolerate what it deems to be interference in its internal affairs. But they also need each other. If we continue this path, the World Wide Web looks destined to fracture in two and put an end to the so-called global data economy, which is bad news for both sides.

We are on the verge of a technological cold war that looks likely to spread beyond the US and China. Nations will be forced to pick a side as the inevitable geopolitical struggle over technology continues to divide rather than unite the world. 

Despite advances in technology that highlight how technology works best when it brings people together, humans seem inexplicably attracted to their primitive instincts. Ironically a Machiavellian ruthlessness or thirst for influence and power is only going to prevent progress. 

Only when leaders stop trying to limit the other's access to its advanced know-how can we all begin to move forward together as a global community. Sadly, this is one lesson that the human race has failed to learn.

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