By Jonny Spink
Last week, the UK government announced plans to phase out Huawei’s networking equipment from the country’s upcoming 5G networks. The announcement includes a ban on purchasing new equipment from the Chinese technology firm (by UK Telecom operators), with further instruction to remove already purchased equipment by 2027. The government, “uncertainties […] around Huawei’s supply chain”, created by and large by the US imposed sanctions, as the driving factor behind its decision. As tensions mount between western governments and China, the question of data regulation and security is at the forefront of the law-making agenda.
WHAT IS HUAWEI?
Founded in 1987, Huawei (pronounced “Wah-Way”) is a Chinese multinational technology company providing telecommunications equipment and consumer electronics, such as smartphones.
The company has the second-highest market share in smartphone sales (17.8%), outpaced only by South Korean rival, Samsung. Within the network infrastructure market, Huawei holds 28% of the market, leagues above competitors such as Nokia and Ericsson.
For a company that seemingly offers quality products and services, the question naturally arises: why has the UK decided to ban its equipment?
REASONS FOR THE BAN
In the House of Commons last Tuesday, The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport, Oliver Dowden, cited the principal reason driving the ban concerns issues around the reliability of Huawei’s supply chain.
On 15th May 2020, the US government placed sanctions on the tech company, preventing their use of American technology within their products. Such a move was the latest in a long line of sanctions
previously placed on the company, prohibiting US companies from selling to Huawei and its associates unless the exporter held a special license. Unable to purchase products Huawei previously relied on, the company is ultimately forced to revise their supply chains.
Whilst each imposing sanction undoubtedly created challenges for Huawei, the most recent, in May, was described by Dowden as “a significant material change” with “potentially severe impacts on Huawei’s ability to supply new equipment in the United Kingdom.”
WHY DID THE US PLACE SANCTIONS?
Amongst other reasons, the US’s rationale behind such sanctions seems to be an attempt to mitigate the risks posed by Huawei (and other Chinese tech companies) to national security, mainly within
the arena of data regulation and protection.
The grounds of such risks revolve around China’s fairly expansive ‘internet laws’ which contain provisions that would require tech firms such as Huawei to aid the government with largely undefined ‘intelligence work’.
Article 7 of the 2017 National Intelligence Law states that “any organisation or citizen shall support, assist and cooperate with the state intelligence work in accordance with the law”.
Further, provisions within the 2014 Counter-Espionage law state that “when the state security organ investigates and understands the situation of espionage and collects relevant evidence, the relevant
organisations and individuals shall provide it truthfully and may not refuse.”
The concern around such provisions centres around the scenario that they are initiated by the Chinese government to instruct Huawei to hand over any personal data as part of a vaguely defined ‘situation of espionage’. Similar concerns have arisen around the heightened popularity of social networking app TikTok which is currently under scrutiny from the US government.
Although such laws exist, Huawei has consistently denied any allegations that it poses a security risk.
WHY IS DATA PROTECTION AND REGULATION IMPORTANT TO LAW STUDENTS?
With the world turning ever closer to total technological integration in our daily lives, issues around data management will be prevalent for many years to come. The amount of technological data created and stored continues to grow at an unprecedented rate, particularly following the effects of COVID-19, as companies move to virtual and ‘cloud-based’ working. As a result, strong robust procedures are required to ensure the protection and privacy of individuals.
Undoubtedly, conflicts will arise between companies (and even individuals), as attempts are made to adhere to increasingly stricter regulations, particularly in light of an A.I Arms race. As a result, an increased call for lawyers who specialise in areas such as technology and data law will presumably follow.
Although clearly relevant for technology lawyers, a topic such as data regulation is impossible to categorise neatly into a single branch of law. Any development will have consequences running deep within both the public and private law sectors, as well as reflecting wider political and international relations.
Thus, irrespective of your desire to enter the specific legal area, developments in the world of network infrastructure and data management will certainly be of relevance.