A leaked White House Powerpoint deck published by Axios reveals that some elements in the Trump administration are trying to sell a plan for the US government to build the nation's "5g" wireless infrastructure, hardened against Chinese surveillance and attacks, and then lease access to the private telcoms sector; the network architecture could then be reproduced and given to US allies to help them defend themselves against Chinese attacks.
The memo proposes rolling out a government-controlled 5g system in three years; and likens the effort to Eisenhower's national highway system, in which the government created an ambitious infrastructure project that opened up commerce by the private sector.
Axios quotes an anonymous "source familiar with the document's drafting" who says this was an early draft and that later versions only proposed this as one possibility.
FCC chairman Ajit Pai released a statement today opposing the plan, on the extremely predictable grounds that the private sector does everything better than governments. Pai is a notorious corporatist who opposes any state intervention in any markets, even ones that have catastrophically failed.
The question of government creation or management of national information grids is a thorny one. Leaving aside the security question — the US government has hardly covered itself in glory when it comes to defending US interests against foreign cyber-attacks, or even domestic criminals — there's the obvious matter of mass surveillance and censorship. The US has proven itself to be unable to rein in its spy agencies or even impose the tiniest quantum of accountability in domestic surveillance. Add to that a president who has openly called for a system of censorship to limit unfavorable news coverage and it's easy to see how a state-run telcoms network could quickly become a nexus for amplifying authoritarian urges and permanently embedding authoritarianism in US politics.
Against that, consider Susan Crawford's likening of universal broadband to the government push for universal electrification under the New Deal — full participation in 21st century society relies on fast, reliable broadband access.
Further to that, remember that much of the state's illegal spying was accomplished through public-private partnerships with telcoms giants who were only too glad to effect the spying the US could not legally undertake on its own, all shielded from Freedom of Information Act requests — when it comes to surveillance, state-run broadband networks might be more transparent (thanks to FOIA) that private ones.
Then there's the Net Neutrality question: the telcos' arguments for delivering networks that prioritize their shareholders' needs over their customers' is that they would not invest in broadband unless their monopolies were accompanied by an unlimited license to block or slow connections from online providers who won't pay for "premium" access. If the infrastructure were publicly owned, it would be subject to First Amendment principles (meaning that it could not be managed in a way that discriminated on the basis of protected categories under US law, and could not practice censorship), and its use could be conditioned on upholding those principles as well as the principle of Net Neutrality.
All of these potential benefits depend on faith in the rule of law, which is a precarious faith in Trump's America. But a faith in industry-delivered broadband requires that we trust the Slow AIs of corporate America not to spy on us or censor us — and ultimately requires the same faith in the rule of law to rein in their excesses.
I confess I don't know how I feel about this plan. If President Bernie Sanders or President Elizabeth Warren were proposing it, I think I'd be much more favorable to it — and yet, I'm mindful that this is why Democrats decided it was OK for President Obama to create programs of extrajudicial assassination and mass surveillance, programs that President Donald Fucking Trump controls today.
If President Worse-Than-Trump takes office in 2024, would he have an easier time making mischief by steering a national 5g grid, or by ordering/regulating the private sector to do the same? Would Rogue FCC Twitter accounts and future Reality Winners tell us that Pres. W-T-T was manipulating the network, or would we have to count on corporations being less surveillance-friendly than Yahoo was when it illegally helped the NSA spy on all its users and then covering it up for years?
The PowerPoint presentation says that the U.S. has to build superfast 5G wireless technology quickly because "China has achieved a dominant position in the manufacture and operation of network infrastructure," and "China is the dominant malicious actor in the Information Domain." To illustrate the current state of U.S. wireless networks, the PowerPoint uses a picture of a medieval walled city, compared to a future represented by a photo of lower Manhattan.
The best way to do this, the memo argues, is for the government to build a network itself. It would then rent access to carriers like AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile. (A source familiar with the document's drafting told Axios this is an "old" draft and a newer version is neutral about whether the U.S. government should build and own it.)
Scoop: Trump team considers nationalizing 5G network [Jonathan Swan, David McCabe, Ina Fried and Kim Hart/Axios]