Why "tech freedom" must reign in mobile telecoms

In this article, Ziad Dalloul (Chairman and CEO, Africell) and Bonnie Glick (Director, Krach Institute for Tech Diplomacy at Purdue) explain the strategic importance of trusted technology in telecommunications and other emerging sectors.

There are two ways to think about the concept of “tech freedom.”

One is to focus on intent and capability. On this view, free tech is that which isn’t designed and cannot easily be used to coerce, censor, or oppress.

Another approach is to consider provenance. Tech from sources with accountable governance and transparent ownership is freer than technology that originates in a more opaque or corrupt environment.

In practice, these ideas amount to something similar, because tech with trusted provenance tends to be more benign in its application.

Tech freedom matters because individual rights, open markets, the rule of law, and democracy matter. Trusted tech supports these things. Untrusted tech, by contrast, hands instruments of control to would-be authoritarians. This is particularly dangerous in places where democracy is fragile.

For example: in many African countries, institutions are still recovering from the traumatic civil wars which erupted following independence struggles in the 1950s and ‘60s. At the same time, Africa’s technological development has much room for growth. Suppliers of less integrity have a clear opportunity to enter the market, putting political freedom, open markets, and democracy at risk. This is worrying because, as the U.S. government’s recent Africa strategy notes, Africa will produce a quarter of the world’s population by 2050 and is home to many resources vital to modern economic activity.

In the global contest between free and unfree tech, the U.S. and its allies have until now been too slow and reactive. They haven’t taken a sufficiently long-term view of transformational “deep technologies” such as 5G wireless communications. These technologies offer enormous potential benefits, but they also require intensive upfront research and offer at best a distant pay-off. Investment has been tentative. Moreover, until now, political will to take the initiative has been limited. Problematic technologies from other parts of the world have been allowed to steal a march.

But this is changing.

There are signs that the U.S. government and its allies are taking things more seriously. In recent years, legislation has been written, policies enacted and diplomatic campaigns launched intended to revitalise allied competitiveness in fields such as 5G, semiconductors, and AI.

This shift has yielded a more productive environment for democracy-minded firms looking to compete. More trustworthy technology vendors are now active and available in industries in which security and reliability are paramount.

In telecommunications, for example, operators have increasing access to high-quality, affordable, and politically uncompromised equipment. For many years, there were no viable U.S. or allied suppliers of wireless telecommunications network infrastructure equipment, especially in emerging markets. Operators trying to build 4G or 5G networks in much of Africa relied on Chinese suppliers, with the attendant risks to personal and national security. The correction of this imbalance is to be welcomed by anyone with an interest in an open, democratic and securely connected Africa.

For this shift to become permanent, three things must happen.

First, advances in manufacturing capability in the United States and allied countries must continue. If a fledgling research and development pipeline doesn’t flow directly into an industrial base optimised to produce future technologies at scale, then all the exciting and innovative ideas may come to nothing.  

Second, financing needs to be made available so that companies can justify investing in trusted tech. In some fields, such as 5G connectivity, equipment from China is typically the cheapest on the market. But the wider picture is clear: equipment from Europe or North America is significantly more secure. Governments and financial institutions must support companies faced with this commercial dilemma, ensuring that they make the right long-term decisions.

Finally, education needs to improve. Tech-savvy workforces are a bulwark against the creep of harmful technologies. They can demand transparency and hold companies and governments to higher standards. This is especially true in Africa, where technology is almost always imported. African citizens will be safer and more empowered if they understand the implications of the choices made by national leaders and can hold them accountable.

The time to act is now.

It is easy to envisage a world in which technology systems designed and made in China dominate critical sectors – not only telecommunications, but also computing, AI, biotechnology, clean energy, and more. In that scenario, civil rights around the world will come under pressure, the rule of law will buckle, and progress on international issues such as climate change will falter. This is not desirable – and happily, it isn’t inevitable. Let tech freedom be the rallying cry.

Ziad Dalloul is the founder, Chairman and CEO of Africell.

Bonnie Glick is the Director of the Krach Institute for Tech Diplomacy at Purdue University. As Deputy Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development in 2019-20, Glick served as the Deputy for all U.S. policies and as the Chief Operating Officer of the agency. Among the issues she championed were digital transformation, the significance of 5G as a development priority in emerging markets, private sector engagement, democracy and governance, global vaccine distribution, and food security. 

In September 2022, Africell was named corporate winner in the Krach Institute for Tech Diplomacy at Purdue's inaugural Tech Freedom awards.