Donald Trump has probably lost the adolescent vote for 2020. In two weeks, TikTok will likely go dark in America as the president’s executive order banning the Chinese owned application goes into force. This will leave 80 Million users in the US without a way to create short videos of themselves dancing or a hamster playing piano . This is actually much more serious than it may appear. It represents the latest fracturing of the Internet.
TikTok’s parent company ByteDance is being forced to sell its American operations to a domestic company or shut down by September 15th. Ostensibly, the ban comes out of concern for the privacy of American users. This justification is laughable. Outside of a few narrowly defined categories, consumer data is treated as a fungible commodity in America rather than a private good. The TikTok order is primarily just another volley in the escalating conflict between the United States and China.
A few companies have expressed interest in a shotgun wedding with TikTok, but the two governments seem to be actively scuttling the possibility of concluding any deal by the deadline. President Trump has demanded a cut of the proceeds from any sale. President Xi changed China export controls to take two critical components of TikTok off the table.
It is unfortunate but unsurprising that this is the direction the internet is going. We can expect more of the same. Dr. Konstantinos Komaitis, Senior Director of Policy, Strategy and Development at the Internet Society, recently commented on this:
The missed detail in all these conversations is that the Internet, for better or worse, is now part of the traditional geopolitics. So the geopolitical shifts that we’re seeing happening outside of the Internet, inevitably will move into the Internet because it’s so integrated in societies and the way we work and experience everyday life. The problem now is that nobody really is paying very much attention to the impact that all this has on this global network of networks.
The misdirection surrounding the ByteDance order is a symptom of this dynamic. TikTok is put front and center because it is popular. When US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claims that some Chinese tech companies are “feeding data directly to the Chinese Communist Party”, TikTok makes it personal. A much stronger case can be made that WeChat is a potential threat to national security than TikTok. Most Americans haven’t heard of WeChat, a social media platform extremely popular outside of the US, which will also be blacklisted. Yet even though WeChat has millions of users in the US, most of them ex-pats from other countries, it is more or less unknown to the American general public. As a result, it is a less than ideal poster child for the cause. While the loss of TikTok will annoy many a would-be social media star, the loss of WeChat will have a much more consequential impact.
WeChat has roughly 1.2 Billion users, most of them in China. Those users depend on WeChat for many aspects of their daily lives including conducting business. According to Kerr Gibbs president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, “almost everything” in China is purchased using a digital platform like WeChat Pay or the Alibaba-affiliated AliPay. “For US companies in China, losing the ability to use the WeChat platform could literally be an existential threat,” Kerr said in an interview with CNN. “If you can’t accept those forms of payments, you can’t accept money.”
We like to think of the Internet as the great equalizer, an enabler and accelerator of globalization. That notion is rapidly becoming quaint if not outright naïve. The internet has always been a “network of networks” but now the links among those networks are becoming tenuous and the gatekeepers more selective. America is not alone in banning applications from less favored countries. In June, India banned 59 Chinese apps as “prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defense of India, security of state, and public order.” The actual reason for the ban appears to be retaliation for a military skirmish between India and China in the Himalayas.
There are legitimate reasons for controlling or even banning many applications and services. Each country has its own motivations usually lumped under the heading of “digital sovereignty.” What we are seeing now, however, is the transformation of digital sovereignty into cyber-nationalism. Online espionage and digital statecraft must be addressed, but not at the expense of the open internet. Current policy trends are undermining the fundamental nature of the net for political purposes and both the public and industry will have to deal with the ramifications. We are currently on the fast track to making the phrase “World Wide Web” an anachronism.