As It Happens

Consumers will pay the price for Google cutting ties with Huawei, says cyber policy expert

If you use a Huawei cellphone, it's almost certain you use Google products, too. But that could soon change in a big way. 

'It's going to hurt not just U.S. businesses, but also consumers around the world,' says Emily Taylor

Google has barred Huawei from updates to the Android operating system. ( David Becker/Getty Images)
Listen7:03

Read Story Transcript

As the U.S. and China battle for technological dominance, it is consumers who are taking the hit, says a digital policy expert.

Google has told Chinese tech giant Huawei — the world's second-biggest smartphone maker — that it will begin to restrict the company from using its Android operating system.

That means any future models of Huawei phones may not have Google apps like Gmail, YouTube or Maps.

Google says it's complying with a decision made last week by Donald Trump. The U.S. president added Huawei to a trade blacklist of companies that American firms can't trade with unless they have a license. 

Emily Taylor, associate fellow at U.K. think-tank Chatham House and editor of the Cyber Policy Journal, spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about the implications of Google's decision. Here is part of their conversation. 

How big of a blow is this for Huawei?

It's definitely a setback. There's no doubt about it. Google is one of the world's top software providers. It's got a dominant position in many software markets. 

You just think about its applications like YouTube, Maps, Gmail — which is so heavily used throughout the world.

That said, it's probably also a setback for Google because Huawei is the second-largest phone mobile handset provider in the world.

What now actually happens to people who have Huawei products or are planning to buy them?

I think people who have Huawei phones already, there's certain reassurance that they will still be able to update their phone and ... make vital security patches, which are essential in today's world.

For those who might be planning to buy a Huawei phone, it's less clear.

Google said it would enact restrictions on Android updates after U.S. President Donald Trump added Huawei to a trade blacklist. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

The language that press is using is quite extraordinary, isn't it? I mean, the one [Verge] article is describing this as "one of the most dramatic moments in Android's history." Another [New York Times] one is that this is the equivalent of a kind of tech Cold War, with an Iron Curtain now has descended between East and the West. How far would you go?

There's definitely been an escalation in tension, and particularly with the backdrop of the U.S.-China trade negotiations, there's been a lot of focus on Huawei, and particularly with regard to 5G, the new super fast mobile broadband. 

If these measures stay in place, it's going to hurt not just U.S. businesses, but also consumers around the world — those outside of the U.S. who just happened to own a Huawei handset and like using Google products.

And when you have that kind of disruption, I think this is the first time that consumers are really going to be directly impacted by the tensions that are being played out in other fora. 

Is Huawei really the target, or is something else going on here?

Huawei has definitely been a lightning rod, and we've seen that since December last year with the arrest in Canada of its chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, and the subsequent detention of Canadian nationals in China.

But I think that the overall context is what's going on between the U.S. and China. There is this trade negotiation, but also ... the U.S. is having to come to terms with something it's not had to live with before, which is not being the world-beating technology provider for absolutely everything.

The idea of China producing technological champions like Huawei apparently feels threatening to the United States at this time, in this moment.

If you follow the money on this one, who benefits from limiting Huawei's access to Western markets?

It could provide openings for Western providers, for sure. In the context of 5G, there is Nokia, Ericsson and so on, who are very capable major manufacturers in the world of handsets.

Definitely the idea is to hamper Huawei's development as a handset provider to hurt it economically. But just say, what if this provides a new opening for software providers who have previously been shut out by Google's dominance and by it being such an enormous competitor?

It will be very interesting to see whether this has the effect that the Trump administration are hoping for.

China-U.S. tensions have escalated since the Canadian arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou the behest of the United States, where prosecutors want her to stand trial for allegedly violating sanctions against Iran. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

So if you're getting this idea of the Iron Curtain, does it end up that there is East and West, that there are two worlds, and that they have very little communication between them?

That's the risk.

Imagine a scenario where you have your Huawei handset and you have a choice of Chinese providers and apps to do all of those functions like mail, messaging, video streaming and so on. And then in the West, you have a Western provider's phone and all of these U.S. giant tech choices.

That provides a very different experience, which we haven't really seen before to this extent.

The accusation that was levelled at China is that its government interferes in free enterprise and it can't be trusted. For that reason, Huawei can't be trusted. But ... the United States is influencing, is using its muscle, to meddle in business, isn't it? I mean, if Washington can make Google dance to its tune, how different is that from Beijing?

It's definitely the case that over the last five years or so, there have been a number of revelations — for example, from Edward Snowden — about the extent to which U.S. companies were working closely with the American government.

And, of course, a lot of these free-to-use services that we all love online are busy collecting heaps and heaps of data and sharing them, if necessary, with law enforcement and with government.

China often points to that to accuse the West of hypocrisy when ... it expresses worries about the nature of Huawei.

However, I think the major difference is the consequences of sharing that information.

The human rights protections are so different in the West to what they are in China. You just have to remember the story of the Canadian nationals who've been detained in response, apparently, to Meng Wanzhou's arrest.

You see Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig — Canadian nationals who it is reported were just grabbed from the street in the middle of the evening in Beijing  — were kept for months in isolation without access to outside exercise, lights on 24 hours a day, and then held without charge and without access to lawyers.

So when we draw equivalence between data sharing with governments, I think we also have to remember how different some of these situations are, and the consequences of data sharing or the consequences of running up against such regimes.

Written by Sheena Goodyear and Jeanne Armstrong with files from Reuters. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

 

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.