US TikTok Ban: A Death Warrant For the Open Internet

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The US Congress interrogation of TikTok Chief Executive Officer Shou Zi Chew marks a significant turning point in the history of the global, open internet.  

The dramatic five-hour grilling – rooted in geopolitics and Congress’ lack of understanding of technology  – demonstrated that the US government is closer than ever before to enforcing a ban on TikTok’s American presence. 

Instead of using TikTok as a case study to revisit why society has allowed tech companies to make pervasive data collection the norm, policymakers are rushing through bans that are likely to accelerate the geographical fragmentation of the internet.

TikTok uses an algorithm that collects data on its users and feeds them exactly what they’ve been profiled to respond to, including the products and services of advertisers.

That’s the business model of almost every free-to-use social media platform in the world, but TikTok is especially good at it. Nearly 70 per cent of American teenagers use the app, while only 30 per cent of the same age group use Facebook.

The business model that TikTok shares with its US rivals does not seem to bother policymakers too much. Their concern is about whom that data is shared with.  TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is Chinese-owned, and as per Beijing law, all Chinese companies must share data with the government.

Because of this, the Biden administration sees TikTok as a potential national security threat and is urging the Chinese-owned parent company to sell the platform to a US firm if it wishes to continue operating in the US. 

Their fears have spread across the pond, with the UK extending its ban on TikTok in Parliament after joining multiple EU member states in wiping the app from central government official’s work phones. 

Chew, who is Singaporean, has consistently denied the firm’s Chinese links: "ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,”  he insisted during the hearings last week. 

While the west’s anxieties are real, it’s almost impossible to tell how grounded their national security concerns are without solid evidence.

At the same time, however, there is little TikTok can do to prove American user data isn’t vulnerable to Chinese government surveillance.

Initiatives like Project Texas, which allows US user data to be moved to servers in the US, seem compelling. But, as was clear from Congress’s aggressive interrogation of TikTok’s CEO, US policymakers don’t think they need any more information. 

They want to communicate their distrust of China in the context of worsening geopolitical and economic tensions. TikTok – and soon the internet – may be a casualty of that agenda. 

The fragmentation of the Internet

In the early years of the internet, shared physical infrastructure and digital architecture were felt to be a shared objective for countries from both sides of the political spectrum

Everyone, no matter their geography and political difference, had the sole interest in getting online and connecting to the rest of the world. Today, the impact of geopolitics extends into the deepest layers of digital architecture.

China and multiple Chinese companies including Huawei have put forward proposals to technical standards bodies that would change the framework of the internet, fragmenting its common structure. 

These proposals were previously put forward in 2018 but were rejected. But now they’re back with a vengeance – rebranded, broken into smaller parts, and re-presented across numerous standards organisations. 

The Internet, in the last 50 years, has evolved to meet new needs and deliver new services. In some cases, that evolution has required implementing services and protocols that do not seem consistent with those defining principles of the internet’s birth.  

But these proposals are different. Instead of proposing an occasional adaptation of principles, they mandate an overhaul of how networking works on the Internet, enabling new ways to control and fragment the Internet both from a user and architectural design perspective.

While China’s actions are unsurprising given its attitude towards the free flow of data, we are now seeing advanced democracies – which once championed the ideas of open, global internet for all – contribute to the same fragmentary principle. 

A ban on TikTok would be a relief to US democrats and Republicans alike given the video-sharing app’s potential links to the Chinese communist party. But it’s the fragmentary impact of the ban that should be troubling in the land of the free.

Rather than engaging in an open discourse about how to maintain a global internet that respects political diversity and safeguards free expression, advanced democracies are recklessly discarding the value of our collective digital infrastructure due to hasty and impulsive reactions to China's economic and political ascension.

It didn’t have to end this way

TikTok’s futue remains uncertain. But a forced sale to another US firm or an outright ban of the app seems to be the only two options in the eyes of US lawmakers. 

While TikTok’s collection and handling of data should be a call for concern for the US government, it acts in line with the average tech company in the US and a forced sale will likely allow it to sweep future offences under the rug with less scrutiny. 

To read more about data privacy, visit our dedicated Data Management Page.

In December last year, the New York Times found that four Bytedance employees based in the US and China had accessed geolocation data to track a handful of western reporters' movements in an effort to track leaks. 

ByteDance had initially categorically denied the allegations, claiming the company “could not monitor US users in the way the article suggested”, adding that TikTok had never been used to 'target' any “members of the US government, activists, public figures or journalists”. Those claims are now acknowledged to be false.

While this offence was heavily scrutinised by US Policymakers, similar offences from US tech companies resulted in little consequences for the firms involved.

Both Uber and eBay both previously been found carrying out similar aunty-journalist stalking campaigns that led to the arrest of several employees, but today both are operating without repercussions.

As many experts have pointed out, the clearest solution is to establish concrete regulations on real privacy, security, transparency, and other accountability rules, not do Silicon Valley’s bidding by locking out a foreign competitor while giving its American counterparts for committing similar transgressions. 

Yet, after last week, a ban on TikTok is closer than ever. Dozens of House members insisted that TikTok posed an imminent threat, and they spent nearly all of their time issuing statements in support of that.

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