In August, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo launched the Clean Network program—“the Trump administration’s comprehensive approach to guarding our citizens’ privacy and our companies’ most sensitive information from aggressive intrusions by malign actors, such as the Chinese Communist Party.” In addition to the 5G Clean Path initiative announced in April on securing 5G networks for U.S. diplomatic facilities, the program includes five more “lines of effort” to counter China’s influence in U.S. telecommunication networks, mobile app stores, software apps, cloud computing, and undersea cables. The State Department claimed in August that over thirty countries are participating along with leading telecommunication companies around the world.
This unprecedented endeavor by the United States has produced diverse reactions, including Chinese criticism and counter-actions, lamentations that the administration is abandoning the global internet, praise for elevating verification and trust in network operations, suggestions for improving the program’s impact, and offering alternative approaches (as my CFR colleague Robert Knake has done). The range of responses reflects how the program cuts across geopolitical, ideological, technological, and commercial changes that are unsettling the international politics of the internet.
The Clean Network program expresses the administration’s belief that the strategic Chinese threat arises, in large part, from how China has developed and deployed cyber capabilities to facilitate political oppression, military assertiveness, economic nationalism, and diplomatic coercion. Under Secretary of State Keith Krach argued that China’s cyber capabilities, including its surveillance state and Great Firewall, made it possible to conceal the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak, crack down on Hong Kong’s freedoms, engage in border clashes with India, and intensify repression in Xinjiang. The Clean Network program seeks to contain and roll-back the power and influence these capabilities generate for China. These objectives will make the program part of what my CFR colleague Adam Segal called the “coming tech Cold War with China.”
The Clean Network program’s scope—stretching from submarine cables traversing the oceans to citizens downloading smartphone apps—reveals the breadth of the administration’s concerns about the political, ideological, and technological inroads China has made in cyberspace. These concerns recall the warning George Kennan gave in his famous “long telegram” [PDF] in 1946 about the Soviet Union’s “elaborate and far flung apparatus for exertion of its influence in other countries, an apparatus of amazing flexibility and versatility managed by people whose experience and skill in underground methods are presumably without parallel in history.” Replacing the Soviet Union with China and “underground” with “cyber” updates Kennan’s warning for this period of the digital age.
As criticism of the Clean Network program points out, the program envisions significant changes to how the United States thinks about, and acts within, cyberspace. Responding to the program, the Internet Society claimed that the “United States, the country that funded the early development of the Internet, is now considering policies that would fracture it into pieces” threatening to accelerate the “global momentum towards a ‘Splinternet.’”
The Clean Network program is driven by the belief that confronting Chinese power and ideology requires transforming how the United States, other liberal democracies, and free-market enterprises build and use cyber technologies. By moving in this direction, the administration acknowledges that what worked in the past is not now serving the United States and likeminded countries well. Whether we like it or not, the internet is no longer the “Internet.” Or, as Kennan put it, when faced with new geopolitical and ideological challenges, the “first step must be to apprehend, and recognize for what it is, the nature of the movement with which we are dealing,” and then “formulate and put forward for other nations a . . . positive and constructive picture of [the] sort of world we would like to see[.]”
The Clean Network program does not necessarily embody the best vision for the future. Jason Healy has argued that its single-minded focus on China fails to address the full range of privacy, cybersecurity, and internet freedom problems that democratic nations should strengthen cooperation to prevent and mitigate. As Healy put it, the program makes the United States look “more afraid of China than it cares about an open and secure Internet.”
Unfortunately, the anti-China nature of the Clean Network program might be all that can garner political consensus on cyberspace policy in a divided American body politic. Problems have been mounting for years in this area without adequate responses from the U.S. government and private sector. In the long telegram, Kennan advised that “much depends on [the] health and vigor of our own society” and each “measure to solve internal problems of our own society, to improve self confidence, discipline, morale and community spirit of our own people, is a diplomatic victory . . . worth a thousand diplomatic notes and joint communiques.” Any review of almost any thousand tweets today would be enough to suggest that the United States is in trouble at home and abroad in connection with how the international politics of cyberspace are changing.