US tech companies, Google and Facebook, have removed Hong Kong from an undersea web cable project that was launched in 2017. The decision is as a result of the growing distrust of China by the US government.
The cable project called the Pacific Light Cable Network is the product of a partnership among Google, Facebook, and other tech companies. The project is expected to boost internet connectivity speeds and capacity between North America and Asia by developing a 13,900km undersea cable.
The cables were supposed to have landing points in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Philippines. But on June 17, the US Justice Department asked the Federal Communications Commission to deny approval for the landing points in Hong Kong. The department said that the link would give the Chinese government a means of acquiring the personal data of Americans and therefore is a matter of national security.
2016 till now, why the sudden change?
The cable project is funded by both Google and Facebook, as well as a Hong Kong-based company named Pacific Light Data Communications (PLDC). According to the terms of the deal, PLDC is supposed to own 4 of the cable project’s 6 fibre optic pairs.
At the time the deal was made, the Hong Kong company was owned by Wei Junkang, a Chinese steel and real estate tycoon. In December 2017, the company was sold to a private broadband provider in China called Dr Peng Telecom & Media Group.
This is where the US security agencies smelled trouble.
Dr Peng has a close working relationship with Huawei and has also worked on state projects for China which include a surveillance network that is currently used by Beijing police.
Dr Peng having ownership of 4 out of 6 of the cable project’s fibre optic pairs with landing points in Hong Kong is a recipe for disaster, in the opinion of US security agencies, considering its close ties to China and the cold war between China and the US.
What this means for Hong Kong
Following the denial of approval by the FCC, Google and Facebook submitted a revised proposal that had 2 instead of the 3 trans-pacific links, leaving out the link to Hong Kong. The proposal has been approved.
Even though the Hong Kong section of the deal has been completed, the US companies will not be operating them. This means that Hong Kong and its citizens will be shut out from the improved internet connection speeds that the cable project will provide to North America, Taiwan and the Philippines.
According to a Google spokesperson, “we can confirm that the original application for the PLCN cable system has been withdrawn, and a revised application for the US-Taiwan and US-Philippines portions of the system has been submitted. We continue to work through established channels to obtain cable landing licenses for our undersea cables.”
The recommendation to leave out Hong Kong from the landing points was given by the security agencies as a way of approving sections of the project that are considered to be safe to the US.
This is another chapter of the ongoing war between China and the US. Recall that the US blacklisted Huawei, after which Google cut its business ties with the Chinese company in 2019.
TikTok has also come under fire based on concerns that the Chinese company may share the personal data of Americans with the Chinese government.
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