On July 4, The Washington Post published an op-ed headlined “China’s biggest cellphone company censors content — even in the United States,” revealing that users of China Mobile — a Chinese state-owned telecoms carrier — are unable to access websites banned in China while roaming in the US. The article characterizes the case as evidence of China’s deliberate meddling with America’s freedom of expression, warning against Americans becoming “accustomed to living in China’s world.”
The author addresses a valid concern: as the Chinese government willfully attempts to infiltrate US academia and private sector, American people and industries must be protected. However, the article overlooked a key fact: the Chinese carrier is simply abiding by common international roaming practices.
The LTE guidelines permit two roaming architectures. The home-routed model allows the subscriber to access sites through their home network, granting the home carrier more control over the end-user’s data traffic; the local-breakout model directly delivers services to the end-user, giving the visited network almost complete control over user data. The latter, albeit faster, is only used when a trusted partnership is present between the two operators.
China Mobile utilizes home-routed architecture for users roaming in the US, as do many other carriers — including T-Mobile, which allows me access to American websites while I’m in China. Because China Mobile’s home network is located in China, users cannot access blocked websites as a result — even when they are physically abroad.
If a close partnership is established between China Mobile and an American carrier, both parties shall adopt the local-breakout structure. That being said, the data traffic of American users will be subject to Chinese surveillance, which is an even bigger problem.
Chinese state-owned operators, including China Mobile and China Telecom, do sell SIM cards with unfettered access to Google, Twitter, and Facebook to Chinese expatriates through their respective subsidiaries in the US (CTExcel) and the UK (CMLink).
The Chinese government’s political influence is undeniably growing, but the technical side of the issue should be investigated. At the end of the day, we must not let witch-hunts to distract us from the genuine challenges in the landscape of US-China relations.
Originally published on Medium.