On Sunday night, Axios revealed a bizarre Trump administration memo that, among other things, contains a plan for a wide-scale federal takeover of American telecommunications. At once chilling in its implications and comical in its language, the memo proposes that the U.S. government should take over the creation and ownership of America’s mobile networks going forward, because, “otherwise, China will win.”
That’s a point first made in the president’s National Security Strategy, and a common theme throughout the memo, in fact. At its beginning, the document declares that, “We are losing” to China. It then goes on to list the successes of Chinese, Korean, and European telecom companies, and to propose that they represent a threat to national security that must be met by the federal government. In addition, the memo suggests that international competition has caused American companies to disappear, even as it cites the American iPhone as a transformative device. Nowhere is it acknowledged that Apple, who built that transformative device, has been helped by global competition more than it has been hurt. Apple collaborates with firms all over the world. Without this collaboration, the iPhone would not be possible. Thus, the same document criticizes the use of Chinese parts in American products (and proposes ‘informal restrictions against’ them; perhaps in the form of tariffs, given recent policy) on one hand while endorsing a device that relies heavily upon them on the other.
Some outlets have reported that the memo lays out both a socialized option for 5G and a government-standardized private-sector option. But this is misleading. In the memo, the socialized option is listed as having “Pros” but no “Cons,” while the pseudo-market option, predictably, is described as having “Cons” but no “Pros.” (Reflecting the cutting-edge views of the administration, “Fast Deployment” is presented as a perk of the socialized version. Remember when the government tried to make a website to sell services, without even having to make the service itself?) This attitude is redolent of the sort of “scientific planning” that characterized postwar socialism, which was supposed to relegate the “chaos” of free societies to the dustbin of history, but instead brought every economy it infected to a grinding halt.
The memo is so nakedly statist in nature it would make Bernie Sanders blush. Not only does it propose that the government train workers in relevant skills, it suggests that, once trained, those workers would be expected to go to work for the government’s network. Protectionism, check. Mass mobilization of labor by the state, check. An explicit preference for government-run technology over the private sector, check.
The Trump administration claimed, in revoking the Title II status of broadband, that it was opening the Internet back up to competition and innovation, and thus restoring freedom. But apparently, its issue with the FCC’s interpretation of the Communications Act of 1934 was not that it yielded too much restriction, but that it did not yield enough. To his credit, FCC chairman Ajit Pai immediately came out against the nationalization proposal, but the White House has not joined him. Indeed, National Security Council spokesperson Marc Raimondi has informed The Hill that the plan remains on the table. (The memo seems to suggest that this effort should be carried out by the Department of Defense, though under what authorization it would do so is not clear.)
Government-owned and -operated telecommunications systems are a hallmark of authoritarian and socialist regimes. I have lived in places in which certain websites — or the very Internet itself — are shut down whenever the government wants. It’s especially chilling to see an American administration lay out a socialist proposal as a way to bring “Freedom of Speech” and “Rule of Law” to the information infrastructure. In a world where developing countries are privatizing their formerly nationalized industries to improve efficiency and reduce corruption, the United States is seriously considering going in the other direction.
It’s difficult to emphasize just how strange and unnecessary this proposal is — especially from a Republican administration. The White House is proposing here what far-left socialist magazines have been urging for years, and often in the same language. Any plan of this sort would necessitate government interference in industry on a scale well beyond that which characterized Obamacare. Will Republicans hold to their principles in making sure that doesn’t happen, or will they shy away in the craven name of party loyalty?