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US-China battle on Huawei could lead to a 'splinternet'

Edmund Heaphy
Finance and news reporter
The war over Huawei could have implications for the structure of the internet. Photo: Mark Schiefelbein/AP

The banning of Chinese technology companies like Huawei in the US could heighten the risk that the internet splits into two competing networks, according to a leading expert.

John Chipman, the director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, warned that a competing Chinese version of the internet could potentially be “much more attractive” to countries in the developing world.

Chipman was speaking during a panel discussion on the potential global impact of a technology cold war at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

“The continuation of a single internet would see all countries, including China, having a vested interest in the global economy that it supports,” he said.

“A bifurcation of the internet — sometimes called the splinternet — could see two competing models.”

This could involve completely separate supply chains and computer systems built to different standards, meaning that internet technology, software, and other types of internet infrastructure may not be able to work together.

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Each system would be looking to win business from each other, Chipman said. But the system built by the Chinese — which would likely end up being more closed-off than the current internet — would probably be more attractive to countries in the developing world, which tend to prioritise internal security.

“Clearly, the banning of Chinese tech in the US and allied networks heightens the risk of a splinternet,” he said.

Chipman noted that a splinternet was already occurring in the military world.

“You saw last week,” he said, “that the US asked the Taiwanese company TSMC, that also supplies Huawei, to produce its military chips in the US, because those are the military chips that go into the F-35 fighter jet.”

But Chipman warned that while a splinternet may have some benefits for certain countries, “a balkanised network though, would be problematic for consumers, and maybe even more dangerous.”

“It could mean that more state-on-state cyber-operations are conducted,” he said.

“There are lots of national security risks that could also arise from a lack of diversity in the high-tech marketplace.”