The White House is signaling that it may soon bar TikTok from the US—its first ever ban of a foreign online platform—in “weeks not months.”
Just days after president Donald Trump said this month he was “looking at” banning TikTok, owned by Beijing-based social media giant ByteDance, trade adviser Peter Navarro reinforced the message, saying he expects the president to take “strong action” against it and other Chinese apps. And over the weekend, the president’s campaign began running ads urging people to sign a petition to ban the short video app over concerns it puts the data of its US users at risk of misuse by China’s Communist Party.
While a backlash against Chinese technology has been underway for a while, a complete ban like this would be unprecedented for the US. Previously, Trump’s ire was mostly directed at Chinese hardware firms like telecom equipment giants Huawei and ZTE, and the administration had cited specific legal infringements to kneecap those companies. To shut out platforms based on their national origin, many worry, would suggest that Beijing’s vision of a fragmented, tightly controlled internet—a model it calls “cyber sovereignty“—is triumphing over the vision of a loosely regulated open internet that the US has championed.
“If a ban on TikTok comes through, we are going to see the cyber sovereignty model accelerate around the world,” said Samm Sacks, a cybersecurity and China expert at the Washington, DC-based New America think tank. “Because it means the US has created a blueprint to go, ‘Okay, cyberspace needs to be mapped around national borders.’”
Beijing’s internet philosophy gains followers
China began censoring online speech and interfering with access almost as soon as the internet came into public use, but the philosophy to justify that approach took shape later. By 2014, China was hosting an annual internet conference to promote “cyber sovereignty”—the idea that a nation’s sovereignty extends from its physical territory into cyberspace, and that countries shouldn’t interfere with how other nations regulate the internet. At the next edition of the conference, president Xi Jinping declared that a singular internet would amount to “cyber hegemony.”
“We should respect the right of individual countries to independently choose their own path of cyber development,” said Xi in a video address, adding that, “Like in the real world, freedom and order are both necessary in cyberspace.”
In a 2017 article, People’s Liberation Army major Hao Yeli noted that, “In China, we used to say that the party branch is organized on a company basis, but now, the regime must be built on the internet.”
In recent days, it’s become clear that Beijing is bringing Hong Kong, which had been free of internet censorship even after the 1997 handover, into the mainland’s cyberspace regime, with the help of a new national security law it imposed on the territory as part of a crackdown after the protests of last year.
Beyond China, allies Russia and Iran have pushed forward with “domestic” internets. But such moves had been seen as largely the purview of authoritarian regimes—until last month, when India suddenly banned 59 Chinese apps, including TikTok, citing privacy and national security concerns. It was the first such sweeping move by a democracy, and came as tensions soared between the two countries over a border conflict.
“If there was a country following the Chinese path of internet control, I think that is unfortunately India,” said Daniel Sinclair, an independent researcher who studies TikTok and social media. Last year, New Delhi imposed an internet blackout for seven months in the heavily militarized state of Kashmir, and also tried to stymie protests in the capital by cutting the internet. Sinclair added that the “side effects” of the Great Firewall—a homegrown ecosystem of successful tech platforms—are “becoming explicit goals for India.”
The impact of a similar move from the US on the global internet would be far greater, argues Sacks. “If the US does it, it opens the floodgate for advanced liberal democracies to begin doing this too,” she said. Still, even if the US heads further in the direction of “techno-nationalism,” it’s certain to be very different from Chinese cyber sovereignty, cautioned Sacks, because “we are not rounding up dissidents by monitoring their text messages.”
Some China tech watchers, in fact, argue tougher steps by the US are necessary to address America’s imbalanced cyberspace relationship with Communist China.
“China blocks all these companies citing domestic internet regulations; but on the other side, countries like the US and the UK have a much more open system. It is like one side has this very huge trade barrier, while the other side has very few,” said Elliott Zaagman, co-host of the China Tech Investor podcast.
“Removing TikTok is a band-aid”
In China’s cyberspace regime, both domestic and foreign private firms are forced to tilt heavily toward complying with the government, without any of the checks of a multiparty democracy. On messaging app WeChat, for example, it is common for text containing “sensitive” images and words to never arrive. As such, any slips by platforms like TikTok—such as when it was recently found to be among a number of apps surreptitiously accessing clipboard data on Apple’s iOS system—are especially concerning, even though the company has said it doesn’t store user data in China, and nor does it censor content on the app.
Still, experts say there’s a better way for the US to address what’s going to be a recurring concern in the internet economy than by banning one platform, particularly one that’s a real rival to US social media apps, and whose users claim to have recently played a prank on the US president.
“Playing whack-a-mole with companies that are deemed to have ‘good’ or ‘bad’ data, privacy or foreign data reporting conduct is, in the medium to long term, not very productive in the absence of setting clearer data standards and issuing regulations that govern data usage by companies both domestic and foreign,” said Rui Zhong, a researcher at the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute in Washington, DC. “Removing TikTok is a band-aid on a much larger underlying problem.”
Instead of taking a leaf out of Beijing’s playbook, Europe offers another model the US could look at—and also improve upon. The 2018 privacy rules known as GDPR fragmented the internet in their own way, but in this case to protect user data from the prying eyes of US government surveillance. Citing those privacy rules, a European court last week struck down an earlier agreement that had allowed US tech giants to move data overseas to process it, a decision that will affect thousands of companies. While those rules were originally aimed at US tech giants, Sinclair believes they’re “the clearest signal that Europe may become more aggressive against China-origin companies as they gain influence.” Already, on matters of hardware, the UK has followed the US to ban Huawei from building its 5G networks.
Europe’s data sovereignty approach makes a lot of sense, and large tech companies should be planning for that to become the norm, said Raina Kumra, a managing partner at VC firm The Fund and a former internet adviser at the State Department during the Obama administration. “What we have now is not designed, it’s predatory to users, and dangerous to our national security,” Kumra said.