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21 March

Banning TikTok will bring on the splinternet

Retaliatory censorship by Russia and China on apps and devices will lead to the West living in a parallel internet.

By Chris Stokel-Walker

Back in December 2019 Russia announced a plan: the birth of the RuNet. This cordoned-off internet would allow the Kremlin to tighten its control over what Russians saw online, curtailing free speech and blocking certain Western sites and platforms.

I had thought then that the “splinternet” would be the sole preserve of authoritarian states like Russia and China, and that it would involve installing the internet infrastructure equivalent of roadblocks in the cabling that connects our planet. To create a splinternet (a portmanteau of “splintered internet”) would require significant technical know-how and plenty of infrastructural work. Three-and-a-bit years on, I realise I was wrong.

TikTok is being banned from government devices around the world, and other organisations such as the BBC are following suit. Representatives of the Chinese government are crying foul, claiming this is undue censorship (TikTok is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance), which is correct, if hypocritical given China’s track record. The United States is seeking to go further, mooting a total ban on the app, supported by both major parties. 

[See also: Is the clock ticking for TikTok?]

Doing so would be bizarre, not least because there remains no evidence that there are any security risks inherent in TikTok that aren’t in any other app we use daily. Nor is there any proof that some of the more outlandish claims that the app is funnelling data to Chinese spies in Beijing are anything other than sub-par thriller fiction from, among others, the former military man Iain Duncan Smith, who has been waging a campaign against TikTok.

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That the BBC, which for its journalism has a high burden of proof that requires claims to have at least two sources, decided to follow the fiction is equally odd. Staff members there have told me they are angry about the demand to delete TikTok from their phones.

But most of all, a ban would set off a catastrophic tech-based version of mutually assured destruction, the policy that kept superpowers from launching nuclear weapons against one another for decades in the 20th century. One expert in Chinese tech – who is no fan themselves of TikTok (they refuse to have it on their phones in case there’s an undetected spy lingering somewhere in their smartphone) – says they worry what will happen if the United States outright bans the app. They fear Twitter, Facebook and other platforms will disappear from Hong Kong, which sits in a halfway house between freedom and autocracy. The impact of a tit-for-tat ban would be enormous.

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But it appears we’re already on that path. By normalising the idea that certain bits of tech that for years have been seen as acceptable are now simply not allowed to be used by politicians, even without evidence, the US, UK and European Union have set off the first skirmishes of a serious conflict. It can’t be a coincidence that weeks after Western democracies banned TikTok from official devices, Russia said its presidential administrative staff must stop using iPhones by 1 April.

The splinternet is happening – but on devices and through apps, rather than big infrastructure. And we’ll all be the poorer for it. People spent years setting up the first internet link between the Soviet Union and the United States, seeing it as an important tool in bringing us closer together. Now, squabbles over who can use what and where are separating us.

Living in parallel internets does no one any good. Every day Russian and Chinese citizens are starved of impartial information, and grow suspicious about Westerners and our motives. Meanwhile, we lose the ability to make the case for democracy to them. We should take heed of the low-level skirmishes that have already gone on – and be wary of beginning open warfare.

[See also: The disturbing rise of TikTok sleuths]

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