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The banning of TikTok and the furthering of the splinternet

TikTok is accused of being Chinese spyware. What would banning it do to the internet?

The fragmentation of the internet and the internet-dependent digital economy, the apps and services space that feeds it, started decades before the current and ongoing cold trade war between the US and China.

Many moves and motivations, some justified, others much less so, have been working towards potentially creating a “spliternet” – but this trade war and general political distrust, as well as the recent “hot” skirmishes on the India-China border – all seem to be adding momentum to the trend.

The US is considering banning TikTok and other China-based apps, according to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. TikTok has been facing pushback from legislators who are worried that the Chinese regime could pressure it into providing users’ data. Having a major Chinese app with alleged ties to the Chinese Communist Party become incredibly popular in the US market has been a concern for the US for some time.

Pompeo was asked if the US should consider banning Chinese apps, especially TikTok.

“With respect to Chinese apps on people’s cell phones, I can assure you the United States will get this one right, too,” Pompeo explained. “I don’t want to get out in front of the President, but it’s something we’re looking at.”

TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a tech company based in Beijing. Recently, the fast-growing social media app, with currently approximately 1 billion users, has been facing criticism due to the “national security threat” it poses owing to it being headquartered in China. Legislators argue that the Chinese government could pressure TikTok to “support and cooperate with intelligence work controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.”

To make it attractive to global users, TikTok’s owners have gone to great lengths to make its Chinese roots less obvious. These efforts more recently include employing Disney’s Kevin Mayer as the global Chief Executive of the app and allowing third parties to review its moderation processes. The app has its servers in Singapore, a move that was supposedly made to avoid Beijing censorship.

Pompeo was asked if Americans should download the app. He responded, “Only if you want your private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.”

But users of the sensational app will most likely not listen to Pompeo unless the app is completely banned. The app has about 40 million users in the US and these users may be more concerned with the next trending dance move than the security concerns.

The idea of TikTok being banned in the US, could cause other countries to follow suit.

This all takes place following India’s recent decision to, in light of the border clashes, ban over 50 Chinese apps, including TikTok. There are many implications of what this might mean, or be signaling long-term.

India’s decision aside, the Trump administration has also been vocal in its dislike of China’s tech giants, like Huawei and TikTok itself, for their potential to harvest and misuse data.

That emerges them as likely threats both to US national security and user privacy, and beside the current political narratives and international trade-centered games of chess, this fear is rooted in the National Intelligence Law passed by China in 2017, which makes it mandatory for the country’s companies to “support, cooperate with and collaborate in national intelligence work.”

The implication seems to be that these companies might be forced to do the bidding of the Chinese authorities and spy on their users abroad – so that those authorities don’t have to.

But the emerging of the “spliternet” – this time for geopolitical, rather than like in the past for business reasons – seems to be evident. And while it is by no means a new phenomenon – this would certainly cement its future.

In the past US-developed platforms like Facebook, Google, and Uber would see “copycats” crop up in different digital markets around the world, most of whom with little ability to encroach on the market already dominated by the apps that came first. (Though VK and Yandex Taxi in Russia (and beyond), would probably beg to disagree – if they were ever in any mood to address this point.)

In any case, this new wave of “nationalized platforms” as the answer to various sovereign countries banning popular and widely used apps and services for political reasons – which also can be seen as the beginning of the unraveling of globalization where it is most obvious, i.e., on the internet – will likely produce new versions of those apps, this time limited to a country’s market.

Not unlike in the case of China’s law that makes other countries suspicious its companies might be doing the data collection and “spying” work on its behalf, many expect that original platforms will suffer more than when faced with commercial copycats in the past – because governments will be behind bans, while not owning or directly controlling these companies.

We recently covered how India was already making a huge effort to get Indian developers to come up with India-first technology and the country has in the last week launched a new app Elyments, set to compete with western social media and keep all user data in India.

If banned in the US, TikTok would lose 330 million users of its billion-or-so global market – in addition to the 200 million lost in India. And Facebook says that over half of its humongous ad revenue actually comes from outside the US – so the scenario where a tit-for-tat action banished it from foreign markets would represent an equally huge blow.

But don’t expect duplicate apps to be the answer to this situation – instead, there could be a fully splintered world, where the US and China will lead their separate groups of apps, rallying other countries around their tech camps based on other considerations, like politics and other forms of trade.

And this brings up to issue of how exactly to enforce such a division and partition of the digital space? China’s Great Firewall might become a blueprint, meaning that the future might bring to life what used to be sci-fi, dystopian mass surveillance.

There’s no denying that TikTok could be a threat to National Security and why should the US allow Chinese apps to flourish in the US when Western apps are all banned in China? A fragmented internet could be the antidote to globalization.

So, since we all know all Big Tech is a surveillance nightmare, it could come down to which large entity we wish to be surveilled by.

Or as Tom Waits once put it, “Two dead ends – and you still got to choose.”

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