In a new opinion piece for the New York Times, Tim Wu, Columbia University law professor and outspoken promoter of the free and open internet, writes an interesting defense of President Trump’s ban on the Chinese apps TikTok and WeChat in the US. Despite calling Trump “the wrong figure to be fighting this fight,” Wu argues that the threatened bans are “an overdue response, a tit for tat, in a long battle for the soul of the internet.” It’s an interesting counterpoint to the myriad, valid issues that have been raised about the ban, and it’s well worth a read.
Core to Wu’s argument is that China has banned TikTok and WeChat competitors like YouTube and WhatsApp for years. Foreign companies are effectively blocked from fully and independently competing in the Chinese market, while Chinese services like TikTok have been freely able to exploit Western markets. As Wu argues:
The asymmetry is unfair and ought no longer be tolerated. The privilege of full internet access — the open internet — should be extended only to companies from countries that respect that openness themselves.
Until now, the US has broadly favored a neutral internet, in the hope that taking this open approach would eventually encourage China to do the same. But China has instead managed “to use the internet to suppress any nascent political opposition and ceaselessly promote its ruling party.” Wu argues that the US’s attempt to maintain the moral high ground and give Chinese companies free access to Western online markets has made it a “sucker.”
Some think that it is a tragic mistake for the United States to violate the principles of internet openness that were pioneered in this country. But there is also such a thing as being a sucker. If China refuses to follow the rules of the open internet, why continue to give it access to internet markets around the world?
There are valid criticisms to be leveled at the US TikTok ban. Just last week my colleague Russell Brandom called it a “gross abuse of power,” pointing to the lack of public evidence of any wrongdoing on the part of TikTok, or the way the ban seems to have sidestepped the normal political processes. And that’s without mentioning the frankly bizarre calls for money to be allocated to the US treasury in the event that Microsoft ends up purchasing the company’s US operations.
Wu doesn’t support Trump’s methods or motives, but instead argues that the West needs to take a more active role in pushing for its version of the internet to succeed, rather than sitting back and hoping the rest of the world comes around.
We need to wake up to the game we are playing when it comes to the future of the global internet. The idealists of the 1990s and early ’00s believed that building a universal network, a kind of digital cosmopolitanism, would lead to world peace and harmony. No one buys that fantasy any longer.
Wu’s counter-argument is an interesting one, and it’s well worth reading.