What Trump’s threat to ban TikTok and WeChat means for the future of the internet

The rise of US data nationalism and the decline of the open web.

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The US has been locked in an escalating battle with China for the four years of the Trump presidency. But in the past 12 months that battle has morphed from an aggressive trade war to an ideological schism over technology, an area that will play a decisive role in the rise of the world’s next superpower.

After petitioning US allies to turn their backs on the Chinese telecoms company Huawei, the Trump administration has now focused its ire on the hugely popular video app TikTok and the Chinese messaging service WeChat. On 7 August Trump issued executive orders that will ban US individuals and firms from doing business with these Chinese companies unless they find new owners within 45 days. Microsoft and Twitter are currently vying for ownership of TikTok. 

In addition, the administration has announced an expansion of the country's “Clean Network” programme – a sweeping initiative aimed at excising Chinese companies from the US tech ecosystem, among them Chinese mobile carriers, telecoms companies, apps and cloud-based storage firms. The programme also includes measures aimed at preventing undersea cables from being tapped by China for “hyper-scale” intelligence gathering.

Many have been quick to point out US hypocrisy in warning about such risks, given the country’s own domestic and international surveillance networks. The Snowden leaks of 2013 demonstrated that the US makes use of undersea cables to gather bulk data about its citizens and those of other countries, while US companies – such as Google, Facebook and Amazon – are some of the most vociferous guzzlers of data worldwide. 

But hypocrisy aside, the move could herald the end of the open and free web as we know it.

The US has long championed the globalised internet. Conversely, it has castigated countries such as China, Russia, Iran and Turkey for their more restrictive approaches to the web. 

“You're really seeing the United States adopt a strategy that previously we mostly would have associated with China,” says Josephine Wolff, assistant professor of cybersecurity policy at Tufts University in Massachusetts. “China is a place where services like Facebook or Google are blocked or slowed down significantly, because of concerns about security risks or data collection.”

But perhaps the global internet appealed to the US partly because it has long dominated the world wide web. The internet originated as a US military project and even today the vast majority of the most powerful internet companies are American. All of the most successful social media apps are American (aside from TikTok). Which invites the question, was the US really embracing the “open web” or merely bolstering the American internet all along?

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One reason for the Clean Network initiative is “an American president in an American administration that is strongly populist, mercantile, anti-international trade and anti-China”, says Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, professor of internet governance and regulation at Oxford University. Another reason, he says, is the new tech cold war that is currently taking shape between the US and China “around information dominance in the world”.

“This tech cold war has all the trappings of the original Cold War – namely, that those sides try to sway the rest of the world into their camps and try to connect them to their version of the internet,” he says.

[see also: The UK’s Huawei decision is emblematic of the new tech cold war]

The Trump administration has said that its new approach is motivated by security concerns, claiming that both Huawei and TikTok collect intelligence on US citizens for the Chinese government and compromise their privacy (both of these claims are currently unproven).

The clean network’s underlying ideology is “data nationalism”, says Anupam Chander, a professor of law at Georgetown University and a specialist in technology law. This is the belief that a country’s data should be stored within its own borders “in order to keep it secure and safe from the prying eyes of foreign governments or foreign corporations”.

But Josephine Wolff argues that while embedding Huawei into core mobile infrastructure in the US could create security risks, these risks don't apply to TikTok or WeChat. “The idea that there's a national security concern because this app that's owned by a Chinese company is subject to the laws of the Chinese government is a pretty extreme take on what poses a national security threat in cyberspace,” she says. 

[see also: Is TikTok really as much of a security threat as Huawei?]

The concept of a “clean network” betrays “a misunderstanding of the internet and what cyber security is about”, she argues, adding that the underlying idea of “cleanliness” is “a very dangerous one in some ways”.

“There’s no possible way to keep all malicious code off the internet,” she says, which means that the aim of most cybersecurity initiatives is to build something relatively secure despite the inevitable risks and vulnerabilities. “I think this idea that what you're going to do instead is build this perfectly clean internet is very misleading, because it's really not something that can be done even by banning apps." 

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Many doubt whether Trump's clean internet initiative is driven by national security concerns at all. “Whenever I hear the national security argument in the context of economic transactions, I become suspicious,” says Mayer-Schönberger. “The beauty of the national security argument is it’s your get-out-of-jail card. It's that one trump card that trumps every other card, because whenever you ask for more details, you're told, ‘I'm sorry, I can't tell you, it's a national security issue.’” He points out that when the Chinese government is probed on sensitive issues it also cites national security concerns.

An economic argument is likely at play, given that TikTok’s US operations are due to be purchased by an American company and that Trump has even suggested that the US Treasury would get a cut of the sale. But geopolitical motivations are also evident. 

Trump’s anti-China rhetoric has ramped up in recent months, ahead of November’s presidential election. “There is a kind of Orwellian effort to position China as the US enemy to coalesce support around Trump, who is protecting us from this alleged enemy,” says Chander. Trump has even suggested that should Biden win the presidency, Americans will soon be speaking Chinese.

[see also: Why time is running out for TikTok in the United States]

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More disturbingly, could Trump’s internet policies signal his authoritarian tendencies? Generally, authoritarian governments are the most likely to implement strict internet controls and data nationalism initiatives. Chander, who has co-authored a paper on data nationalism, has found that a programme of data nationalism is generally accompanied by government desire to exert greater domestic control.

Although Chander underlines that greater internet regulation isn’t always nefarious, “it definitely helps authoritarian governments increase their control over the system”. His research paper shows that greater internet control is often associated with increased censorship. While Trump’s clean internet programme isn’t explicitly about censorship, it does allege that one reason for banning Chinese apps is because they “spread propaganda and disinformation”. 

Experts are already concerned that banning WeChat and TikTok would infringe on free speech and could conflict with the first amendment. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg has said that he fears the repercussions could include censorship of apps in future. The use of vague, subjective terms such as “propaganda” and “disinformation” have stoked fears that the clean internet initiative could open the floodgates to speech being restricted on specious grounds. 

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Is the concern that Chinese apps are conduits for Chinese Communist Party propaganda justified? Late last year, it emerged that TikTok moderators were being instructed to remove content related to politically controversial topics such as Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence or Falun Gong. Since then, the company says it no longer censors content according to China’s foreign policy aims. But while such censorship is undesirable, few could argue that American-owned social media and technology companies don't demonstrate their own pro-US bias.

The US arguably exerts more influence than any other country over which content gets removed from American social media platforms, outside of direct legislation. For example, US intelligence officials met with the heads of the major tech companies in 2018 to discuss how to prevent foreign influence campaigns from affecting the midterm elections. Shortly afterwards, more than 800 independent news and alternative media accounts from across the political spectrum were removed from Facebook for apparently exhibiting "inauthentic behaviour" (actually, many were authentic).

In general, the major social media companies are known to comply with US government demands to remove content. In 2009, the US State Department even asked Twitter to delay scheduled maintenance during Iran's Green Revolution so as not to disrupt the communications of dissidents in Tehran. 

In another move that seems to favour the US, Twitter has begun to put identifiers on accounts that receive funding from state-affiliated bodies. For example, it has labelled the news broadcaster Russia Today as “Russian state-affiliated media”. Brands owned by the media network Maffick, which says it is editorially independent of Russia, are also labelled as affiliated with the Russian state. Maffick is now taking legal action against Twitter as a result.

Twitter has said that the label is determined by the degree of “editorial independence” the platforms have from the government in question. However, it’s unclear how Twitter will verify and monitor the editorial autonomy of various media organisations.

People pointed out that while state-affiliated Chinese and Russian media were swiftly labelled as such, US government-controlled media such as Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe and Voice of America were not given “US state-affiliated media” tags. All are part of the US Agency for Global Media, a US government institution. USAGM's website states that its mission is aligned with the “National Security Strategy” and aims to advance “American influence” by “using accurate, objective information to foster the American values of democracy and free expression”.

Twitter is not censoring content it has labelled as state-affiliated, but this content will no longer be “amplified” or recommended to users, making it less visible on the platform.

These decisions were likely made because as American firms, the major social media platforms are subject to the greatest regulatory and legal oversight in the US – and are therefore more susceptible to pressure from the US government. But if the Chinese government exerted this kind of influence over TikTok, there would undoubtedly be outcry from Western governments. China has always argued that the internet is a tool of US hegemony. If the US continues down the “clean internet” route, does that suggest China was right all along? 

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The Verge writer Sarah Jeong uses the term “information nationalism” to describe the Trump administration’s approach to the internet. She writes that information nationalism “is part of a larger trend towards authoritarianism in the world, but it should still be distinguished from its other facets. It is related to totalitarianism, which frequently relies on propaganda and surveillance, but it is not exactly the same. It walks closely with fascism, which thrives on mythologising shared national identities.” She argues that the US, China and Russia are the three actors currently engaged most strongly in information nationalism, and that the banning of apps and regulation of speech on social media platforms are two of “the battles that make up information-nationalist warfare”.

Some have argued that breaking up and exerting greater localised control over the internet is desirable and even good for “democracy” (see, for example, this Financial Times op-ed). Similarly, two US academics recently argued in the US magazine the Atlantic that China’s approach to the internet is right and it’s time for the US to play catch-up.

On the other hand, technologists and free speech advocates largely balk at the prospect of the so-called splinternet. They argue that greater localised control over the web gives bad actors more room to exploit it.

Given that authoritarianism is on the rise globally, including in the US, a move towards a balkanised internet – cutting off the channels of global information and stifling cross-border exchange of speech and values – could have grievous consequences. 

Laurie Clarke is a reporter at New Statesman Tech.

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