To ban or not to ban; that is the question.

By Dr John Hemmings

The news this week that the EU has provisionally agreed to screen foreign investments into its digital sector is an indication that worries about Chinese state-driven investment into the West’s digital infrastructures are growing.

The fact that Germany is now thinking of following India, Australia, and the US in banning the Chinese electronics firms from deploying or taking part in the construction of its 5G network puts immense pressure on the UK to follow suit. While the Department of Digital Culture, Media and Sport and the National Cyber Security Centre sent telecoms companies a letter earlier this month warning of changes that might take place after Spring 2019, when a security review is completed, media reports have played down the idea. But can Britain really afford to look this particular gift horse in the mouth?

This debate – one that is taking place between those who seek the nation’s fortune and those who commit to its security – is at full tilt this year, not only in Whitehall, but in the City as well. The possible ban is only the tip of the iceberg as the Government considers a proposal organised by the Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy Department, to tighten restrictions around investments into sensitive sectors of the UK economy

However, while the UK’s actions might seem perverse, it is actually behind the herd as various countries have begun to do the same. In July 2017, Germany tightened its investment restrictions over foreign firms attempting to take over companies that possess key technologies or to acquire parts of Germany’s “critical infrastructure”. This autumn, after a year’s debate, the EU provided similar investment screening standards and a mechanism for cooperation.

The big question is whether the watchers at the Banbury Centre (which tracks Huawei tech used in the UK) can catch everything they are supposed to? What are the repercussions if malign code or back-door components are allowed into Britain’s digital infrastructure? What happens to Britain’s place in the Five Eye’s intelligence network if it is found to have been compromised? Outside the EU, London would not want to lose yet another important grouping over which it is able to understand global events and exert leverage in the “special relationship”.

To ban or not to ban; that is the question.

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