The UK government is proposing a new law that will fine telcos for not doing what they’re already compelled to do.
The Telecommunications (Security) Bill (why the brackets?) is designed ‘to give the government unprecedented new powers to boost the security standards of the UK’s telecoms networks and remove the threat of high risk vendors.’ As the UK government mulls whether to allow its citizens to celebrate Christmas, the one thing we definitely need is for it to have unprecedented new powers. After all, it’s done such a great job with the ones it already has.
In fact, this year has shown how superfluous actual laws are, with centuries-old civil liberties trampled on with negligible due process in the name of keeping us safe. Aside from placing the country into a perpetual state of house arrest, the UK government has twice moved to unilaterally restrict and then ban Huawei from the country’s 5G networks. Now it seems to have decided it fancies a law to retroactively legitimise those decisions.
To be fair, Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden did anticipate this move when he announced the ban. “By the time of the next election we will have implemented in law an irreversible path for the complete removal of Huawei equipment from our 5G networks,” he said. Why they didn’t propose the law at the time, therefore, is a mystery, as is the subsequent haste to push it through now, when the Tories still have years to fulfil that promise.
“This groundbreaking bill will give the UK one of the toughest telecoms security regimes in the world and allow us to take the action necessary to protect our networks,” said Dowden, upon unveiling the proposed law. But surely we’re already allowed to take whatever action we deem necessary, otherwise what was the summer ruling all about?
“The Bill will also provide the government with new national security powers to issue directions to public telecoms providers in order to manage the risk of high risk vendors,” says the press release. “While they are already banned from the most sensitive ‘core’ parts of the network, the Bill will allow the Government to impose controls on telecoms providers’ use of goods, services or facilities supplied by high risk vendors.”
That statement is totally disingenuous. The summer ban covered all parts of the network, as Dowden said himself at the time. “No new kit is to be added from January 2021, and UK 5G networks will be Huawei free by the end of 2027.” The release goes on to concede that point, and thus contradict itself, confirming that this bill is merely a rubber-stamping of actions already taken. There’s nothing new here, nor in Huawei’s response.
“It’s disappointing that the government is looking to exclude Huawei from the 5G roll out,” said Huawei VP Victor Zhang. “This decision is politically-motivated and not based on a fair evaluation of the risks. It does not serve anyone’s best interests as it would move Britain into the digital slow lane and put at risk the government’s levelling up agenda.”
Of course it’s a political decision, but the timing remains intriguing. A lot of the political pressure to exclude Huawei came from the Trump administration, which is now on its way out. Is the UK government in a hurry to set this stuff in stone in case the Biden government delivers a different set of instructions?
Another possibility is that the Tories are looking to exploit the current climate of total acquiescence from the opposition on anything that can be spun as a matter of safety. Our entire political class and wider establishment has become so cowed by the COVID-19 pandemic that nobody dares even question the precautionary principle these days, no matter how weakly supported by the facts on the ground.
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