UK government keeps Huawei rebels at bay, for now

A Tory rebel amendment designed to ban Huawei from UK mobile networks was narrowly defeated in a parliamentary vote.

A proposed amendment to the Telecoms Infrastructure Bill, which would eventually make it illegal for UK network operators to use equipment provided by high risk vendors, i.e. Huawei, failed to win a majority vote in the House of Commons. But considering how large the Conservative majority is, the fact that it only lost by 24 votes represented a significant wake up call for the government.

In the end 36 Tory MPs rebelled and 22 abstained, and if five DUP MPs hadn’t voted with the government then it would have only taken eight more rebels to swing the result. Among the rebels were some ‘big hitters, including Ian Duncan-Smith, David Davies, Liam Fox, Esther McVey and Mark Francois. Such a close result puts additional pressure on the Prime Minister as the bill passes through the House of Lords and raises the prospect of further rebellions when the specific 5G bill gets read.

In response to the vote Huawei VP Victor Zhang had the following to say: “We were reassured by the UK government’s decision in January that we could continue working with our customers to keep the 5G roll-out on track. It was an evidence-based decision that will result in a more advanced, more secure and more cost-effective telecoms infrastructure.

“We are proud to have supplied cutting-edge technology to telecoms operators in the UK for more than 15 years and we will build on this strong track record, supporting those customers as they invest in their 5G networks, boosting economic growth and helping the UK continue to compete globally.

“The government has examined the evidence and concluded that Huawei should not be banned on cyber security grounds and two parliamentary committees have done the same and agreed. An evidence-based approach is needed, so we were disappointed to hear some groundless accusations asserted. The industry and experts agree that banning Huawei equipment would leave Britain less secure, less productive and less innovative.”

The debate preceding the vote was initiated by Labour MP Chi Onwurah, who stressed her impeccable credentials at some length, before going on to waste everyone’s time by making a series of cheap party political points. There eventually followed some discussion of Huawei’s security status, its links to the Chinese government and Chinese attitudes to international trade in general, all of which have already been discussed at great length elsewhere.

Onwurah’s main concern about the government’s current position on Huawei appeared to be, not that she lacked faith in the assessment of the National Cyber Security Centre, but that the measures recommended to mitigate any risk posed were being insufficiently implemented. It was then the turn of Tory MPO Ian Duncan-Smith, sponsor of the amendment, to state his case.

Let us be absolutely clear at the outset: this company is not a private company,” said IDS. “Ultimately, it is essentially almost completely owned by Chinese trade unions, and they, of course, are completely locked into the Chinese Government. This an organisation wholly owned by China.

“The single biggest problem we have faced is that, nearly two decades ago, the Chinese Government set out to ensure that they dominated the market. As this organisation has access to nigh-on unlimited funds, it has spent that period underbidding every single time in these processes, from 2G through to 4G and now, as we understand it, 5G.

“If we look at this strategy, we see that when this all began, there were something like 12 companies in this marketplace. One by one, they have disappeared. Why have they disappeared? They simply cannot compete with Huawei’s pricing. These telecoms companies have bit by bit found themselves going to the cheapest bidder, providing the technology is as good as the others. By the way, it is certainly not an argument that Huawei has better technology; there is no evidence of that whatsoever.”

The discussion went on for a while in that vein, the central theme being that Huawei only got where it is today by cheating with the help of the Chinese government. That may well be true, but little concrete evidence was presented to support the claims and, furthermore, they are tangential to the matter of security. There was further protectionist muttering from other MPs that eventually rebelled, creating the impression that, for many of them, this was a matter of international trade rather than security.

IDS went on to expose the fragility of his position with the following statement, made after listing the countries that have implemented more severe restrictions on Huawei. “No matter how intelligent, brilliant and great our security and cyber-security services are, how is it that they are right and everybody else is wrong? In fact, at a briefing the other day, I saw them trashing the Australian view of this. I simply say, fine, but the reality is that we are alone on this matter, and I think that that is a very bad place to be in relation to our closest allies when it comes to security.”

Not only does that statement serve to confirm the fact that this amendment seeks to relegate technical assessments below political ones, it also chooses to overlook the European consensus that is almost identical to the current UK position. The then proceeded to contradict himself by stressing how internationally preeminent the UK’s judgment is on such matters.

This dragged on for a while until DCMS Secretary Oliver Dowden got a word in edgeways. “We looked at this issue over many months and in great technical detail through our telecoms supply chain review,” said Dowden. “This review was informed by technical and security analysis undertaken by GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre. It was the most detailed study of what is needed to protect 5G, anywhere in the world. The recommendations from the review will substantially improve the security and resilience of the UK’s telecoms networks, which are a critical part of our national infrastructure.

“The Government’s decision on high-risk vendors remains. As we have said, we are clear-eyed about the challenges posed by Huawei. That is why the National Security Council has decided that high-risk vendors should be excluded from sensitive and critical parts of networks and that there should be a strict 35% cap on the market share in the rest of the network.

“We will of course keep the 35% cap under review and, over time, our intention is to reduce our reliance on high-risk vendors as the process of market diversification takes place. We want to get to a position where we do not have to use high-risk vendors in our telecoms networks at all, but to do that, we have to work with our Five Eyes and other partners to develop new supply chain capacity in our critical national infrastructure. I can tell the House that we will do that in this Parliament.

The reason IDS and his merry band still voted in favour of their amendment is that they found Dowden’s reassurances to be insufficient, both in terms of substance and timing. It’s hard to imagine what he could have said other than “Oh, alright then, we’ll ban them,” to appease them and that’s where the debate has been left.

The specific bill addressing 5G networks and high risk vendors is due to be read later this year. It looks like the government has some work to do if it doesn’t want to risk having that bill rejected. But, then again, if PM Johnson is looking for a way to retreat from his previous position in order to placate a US President that seems very likely to be in place for most of this Parliament, then this back bench rebellion might not be half as unwelcome as it seems.

UK establishment goes to war with itself over Huawei 5G decision

A bunch of MPs are set to moan in parliament about Huawei today, while a corporate heavy hitter has been recruited as an expert witness for the defence.

Today sees the third reading of the Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Bill 2019-20, which was introduced at the start of this year and is apparently designed to support the UK government’s aggressive fibre rollout targets. However, MPs who are still bent out of shape over the decision to allow some Huawei presence in the UK’s 5G networks apparently see this as an opportunity to introduce an amendment banning Huawei entirely.

The mainstream media is reporting that quite a few Conservative MPs, led by party stalwart Ian Duncan-Smith, will be backing this amendment. We’re led to believe there could be as many as 30 of them, but since the government has a majority of 80, the it seems very unlikely they will succeed. At the very least, however, they’ve got a nice lot of coverage for their concerns and kept the conversation over Huawei and network security alive.

The bill was introduced by former Telegraph tech hack Matt Warman, who is now an MP and part of the department for digital and a bunch of other stuff. He recently argued the toss over this matter in parliament and seemed to agree that, in an ideal world, there would be no ‘high risk’ (i.e. Chinese) vendors’ kit in UK 5G networks at all. However, he wouldn’t make an outright commitment to such a move, nor commit to timescales.

Meanwhile Huawei has mobilised establishment business veteran Mike Rake, who has been on the board of an impressive number of companies, including BT, to write an open letter to nobody in particular, addressing the matter. Here it is in full.

Dear Sir [bit of a controversial start – Ed]

As we leave the EU it has never been more critical to have an open, proactive and informed approach to trade; not just with European partners, but as leading Brexiters have continuously and rightly said, with the US, China and other major economies.

We must also make better use of existing and emerging technologies to improve our productivity and competitiveness. It is in this context that the government rightly put pressure on BT during the time that I was Chairman, and since, to rapidly expand full fibre availability and to be one of the first countries to invest in and launch 5G. Much progress has been made with much still to do. The industry is only able to do this by buying the best equipment at the best price, while ensuring security and diversity of supply.

In relation to 5G considerable progress has been made. This could not have been achieved without using Huawei, who were the first to make reliable equipment available at an economic price. BT and the industry have always been cognisant of the security risks of all suppliers, none of whom are based in the UK and whose equipment is mostly manufactured in China. That is why in 2010, the UK was unique in establishing an independent centre for the verification of Huawei’s software code and hardware – done with the full cooperation of GCHQ. We are fortunate in this country to have in GCHQ, one of the best intelligence gathering agencies in the world. They are clear that this risk can be managed with the safeguards and limits which have been established.

Any attempt to further restrict Huawei 5G equipment, or to remove existing 4G equipment will not only incur very significant costs, but prejudice trade relationships with China and will significantly set back the Government’s broadband ambitions. This in turn will further damage our competitiveness as an economy, at what is a critical moment.

We cannot afford to set back the important technological and communication progress we have made, with ill-informed assertions which are not supported by the facts and the experts. The government has taken an evidence-based decision and we should all support it.

Yours sincerely

Sir Mike Rake

Chairman BT (2007 to 2017), President CBI ( 2013 to 2015), Advisor to Huawei (2019 to present).

Rake is described as ‘Huawei UK advisor’ a role we assume he hasn’t adopted solely out of boredom or the kindness of his heart. In other words, in this current capacity he is effectively acting as a Huawei employee and his words should be viewed in that context. His Twitter profile also reveals he is openly hostile to Brexit, a position he shares with many other establishment types, so he probably wants the UK to align with the EU position on Huawei.

There are some nice euphemisms in the letter, such as ‘economic’ instead of ‘cheap’, but regardless of an economic incentives Rake may have had to right the letter, his argument is sound. The fact still remains that our very well-informed experts reckon the risk can be managed at the proposed level of exposure, so who are these MPs to argue otherwise, unless they themselves have ulterior motives?

Zuckerberg threatened with summons next time he enters UK

Damian Collins, Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee, has given Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg two choices; testify voluntarily or we’ll issue a formal summons next time you enter British jurisdiction.

The letter follows evidence given by Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer to the select committee last week, which has been deemed unsatisfactory by the lawmakers. Attached to the letter was also a list of 39 questions Schroepfer was unable to answer, as the select committee attempts to get to the bottom of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

“Following reports he [Zuckerberg] will be giving evidence to the European Parliament in May, we would like Mr Zuckerberg to come to London during his European trip,” the letter reads. “We would like the session here to take place by 24 May.

“It is worth noting that, while Mr Zuckerberg does not normally come under the jurisdiction of the UK Parliament, he will do so next time he enters the country. We hope that he will respond positively to our request, but if not the Committee will resolve to issue a formal summons for him to appear when he is next in the UK.”

Zuckerberg now has until May 11 to respond, and to show that he is not directly snubbing the UK government. Collins and his cronies might have had their egos dented when Zuckerberg sent one of his deputies to answer their questions, but the flexing of legislative muscles is almost surely going to gain the attention of the Facebook CEO. Zuckerberg might be almost allergic to face-to-face discussions, however ignoring this letter could escalate into somewhat of a PR disaster for the social media giant.

In terms of the unanswered questions, you do have to feel sorry for Schroepfer. The MPs have condemned the executive for not having the answers, but as Schroepfer mentioned several times during the briefing, he came prepared to answer questions specifically on the Cambridge Analytica scandal. This was what was requested of him. He was also very honest with the Committee; when he was not certain he said he would get back to them.

On several occasions, Collins asked Schroepfer to guess at an answer when he did not know, to which Schroepfer refused. What Collins was going to achieve through asking for a guess is beyond us. It seemed the MP was attempting to lure the executive into making inaccurate statements. Schroepfer did well to resist and acted completely appropriately, even if the MPs didn’t, almost mocking him on occasion. It was more of an immature chest-beating exercise to belittle a US executive than a useful inquiry.

There were several questions which Schroepfer should have been able to answer, those which were focused on the scandal, but some were not. And it wasn’t like Collins was asking for information which is easily available. For example, Schroepfer is unlikely to know what percentage of websites on the internet users are tracked by Facebook. Collins is talking about every website on the internet; it isn’t absurd for Schroepfer not to know the answer this question. You can have a look at the full letter and questions below.

Zuckerberg should respond positively to this letter otherwise there is a risk of the situation escalating. It might prove to be a humbling and embarrassing experience for the CEO, as we imagine the MPs will have their sights set on patronising and demeaning him as much as possible as punishment for the earlier snub, but damage limitation is never a simple task.