Back in the ancient days of July 2009, I was in Harbin, in Heilongjiang province, when the Chinese government banned Facebook and Twitter.
I was in college doing a Mandarin language study, and the months after that ban are the most distinctly American that I have ever felt. I spent the rest of the year accessing my friends’ status updates through Tor and an increasingly shady series of VPNs, constantly bemused by the experience of typing an address into a browser and being unable to reach it. This was the World Wide Web! The information superhighway! And here I was, walled off from a huge section of it in the name of being protected from the dangers of information itself.
It’s hard to describe how strange it feels to sit in New York City in 2023 watching American politicians propose fighting Chinese authoritarianism with their own social media ban.
Last Thursday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee grilled TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew in an abrasive hearing that mainly revealed one thing: Congress really, really wants to ban TikTok. Several members made gestures at the idea that this was part of some larger “Big Tech” accountability push, but they spent far more time finding grammatically creative ways to insert the word “communist” into sentences. A prevailing attitude seemed to be something like “we can’t do anything else to govern tech companies, so why not this?”
Banning TikTok is not a signal we’re about to get real tech reform
Banning TikTok is not, as lawmakers claimed in the hearing, a sign that we’re about to get real tech reform. It will almost certainly be a PR move that lets some of the same politicians who profess outrage at TikTok get back to letting everyone from Comcast to the DMV sell your personal information, looking the other way while cops buy records of your movements or arrest you using faulty facial recognition and getting mad you’re allowed to have encryption that prevents the FBI (and probably also foreign governments) from hacking your phone. And it will be a PR move that betrays America’s supposed commitment to free expression in the face of an increasingly splintered internet — born out of a failure to think bigger than one disfavored app.
It’s almost impossible to tell how grounded the national security concerns about TikTok are in solid evidence. It’s definitely true that the Chinese government exercises tight control over the country’s technology industry, when it’s not busy disappearing tech investors. Some of its tech companies have helped construct a nightmare surveillance state that’s facilitating genocide. And there is almost nothing TikTok can do to prove American user data isn’t vulnerable to Chinese government surveillance in some way, despite its elaborate attempts to let Oracle host its data. As long as TikTok is connected to Chinese parent company ByteDance, the possibility is there.
It’s much easier, however, to conclude that the concrete benefit of America banning TikTok for all citizens is dubious. From a privacy perspective, much of what Chinese authorities would likely want from TikTok (including very detailed geolocation data) is readily available from American data brokers. Phones are already little surveillance machines with or without TikTok, and there are countless other ways to get information off of them. So far, there’s more concrete evidence of Tim Hortons secretly tracking the average app user than TikTok.
TikTok has a clear moderation bias, but it’s one lots of Americans seem to agree with
The claims that TikTok will become a covert Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda channel are similarly possible but hypothetical. According to leaked documents, TikTok has clearly had moderation biases at various parts of its lifespan, but they’ve seemed as much aligned to a kind of anodyne positivity as a specific national agenda. Tiananmen Square videos were apparently suppressed at one point, for instance, but so was criticizing any governmental system. Its clearest censorship drive is against the basic concepts of sex, drugs, and violence — which certainly aligns with the CCP but also describes what lots of Americans want from social media, as evidenced by how many lawmakers asked why TikTok wasn’t banning those things as well as its Chinese counterpart Douyin allegedly does. It’s not that TikTok couldn’t be weaponized here, but it seems more cause for vigilance than five-alarm panic.
I’ve seen the argument that because many states and agencies have banned TikTok on government devices, they must know something ominous that we don’t. That’s possible, too, but government agencies are facing higher stakes than the average user and often act out of an abundance of caution. The military took years to let members officially use Android phones; it’s not surprising for government-owned devices to be subject to tighter standards than consumer ones. Also, many of these bans are getting passed by state legislators, who are subject to all the same public pressures and incentives as their counterparts in Washington.
There are other options on the table, but after last week, a ban seems closer than ever
TikTok’s known bad behavior seems unfortunately in line with the average tech company, and a forced sale to a US company will probably just let it sweep future offenses under the rug with less scrutiny. Employees have plausibly snooped on data from the accounts of journalists at least once — but so did Uber, and it’s still operating just fine. A team at eBay carried out a bizarre anti-journalist stalking campaign that saw the arrest of several employees, but so far, there have been few consequences for the company itself. As many reasonable people have pointed out, the clearest solution is to pass 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 a pass for virtually the same offenses.
Yet, after last week, we’re closer to doing that bidding 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. We learned little about TikTok’s true risks.
I think a ban still isn’t the most likely outcome. It seems likely that Congress and the Biden administration are floating the most extreme possibility to bargain ByteDance into a sale, and the RESTRICT Act that sets the stage for banning TikTok also includes several other possible remedies that fall short of a ban. But particularly in the short term, actually banning TikTok seems like a very real possibility. That would put the US in the company of a handful of countries that have nixed TikTok access for the public at large — primarily India, whose government also has a penchant for raiding social networking companies that fact-check politicians and imposing draconian internet blackouts.
The best defense I’ve read of the TikTok ban comes from former Obama official Tim Wu, who simply acknowledged that it’s mainly about punishing the Chinese government and diminishing its global influence. Here’s the heart of Wu’s claim:
Were almost any country other than China involved, Mr. Trump’s demands would be indefensible. But the threatened bans on TikTok and WeChat, whatever their motivations, can also be seen as an overdue response, a tit for tat, in a long battle for the soul of the internet.
In China, the foreign equivalents of TikTok and WeChat — video and messaging apps such as YouTube and WhatsApp — have been banned for years. The country’s extensive blocking, censorship and surveillance violate just about every principle of internet openness and decency. China keeps a closed and censorial internet economy at home while its products enjoy full access to open markets abroad.
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.
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?
This is honest, unvarnished, and compelling. It is also, again, weird. “Principles are for suckers” is not the kind of argument you make lightly. I have great respect for Wu, and I fully believe he’s considered the ramifications of it — but I don’t believe for a minute that some members of Congress, who have spent years introducing knee-jerk legislation specific to the latest tech scandal while dragging their feet on protecting basic rights like privacy, have done so.
The implication in some quarters is that we’re in a cold war with China, but if so, why make information its first casualty? Let’s be clear: America has imposed a lot of terribly punitive sanctions around the world that hit speech as part of broad trade embargoes, including ones that amount to banning citizens of other nations from accessing web platforms. But right now, we’re moving toward a future where you can import nearly any type of good from China but speech, based on fears that seem more like cover for a realpolitik containment strategy.
As Knight First Amendment Institute executive director Jameel Jaffer notes, the First Amendment includes a right for citizens to receive information — even, in fact, foreign propaganda. And banning TikTok would affect not only speech from TikTok but also the speech of users on the platform, who could see their videos made inaccessible. A judge blocked former President Donald Trump’s attempt to ban Chinese app WeChat on those very grounds in 2020, acknowledging the ban solved mostly hypothetical concerns and raised “serious” First Amendment questions for users.
Things didn’t have to be this way
Look, holding to idealistic principles is hard. It requires constant second-guessing that maybe you are just being a sucker, and I can’t rule out the idea that banning TikTok would in some way make America safer from foreign threats. (While I’m emphatically not equating the overall US political system to China’s, the American intelligence community has done a large amount of spying through domestic companies.) But people have made the same argument to justify everything from outlawing encryption to jailing whistleblowers. If it’s time to abandon the idea that Americans should be allowed to access information from around the world on their own terms — including information that might be bad for them — I haven’t seen the evidence yet to justify it.
And the most frustrating part of all is that things didn’t have to be this way. The biggest reason TikTok can’t prove your data is secure is that we live with a web built around opaque walled gardens — one where we’re all putting huge amounts of trust in a few companies that probably don’t deserve it.
There’s a world, by contrast, where services like TikTok are built around interoperability. You could choose where your data is stored, and the app could get access to what you intentionally disclosed, like your viewing history and the videos you’ve posted. While you engaged with tools like AI-generated filters or the recommendation algorithm, things like your location and keystroke data could stay on your phone or with a host of your choosing. And in a worst-case scenario where a TikTok ban did happen, you wouldn’t lose access to every video you’ve ever made or watched. If TikTok refused to allow that kind of interoperability, there’d be a more morally consistent argument for cracking down on it. It wouldn’t solve every potential critique of the service, but it’s far better than what we’ve got now.
There’s ample room for Congress to push for a more interconnected, more private, and more secure internet — and then let TikTok choose whether to engage fairly. Instead, America is on the verge of deciding that the only way to beat China is to join it.