TikTok and the splintering of the global internet

An app known mostly for teenagers posting videos of dance routines and comedy skits might seem an unusual subject of national security concerns. In the unfolding history of the online world, however, the forced sale to an American company of the US arm of TikTok, the first Chinese social media venture to become a global phenomenon, is a milestone. Coming after several western countries rejected Huawei’s 5G technology, it highlights that the bifurcation of the internet — indeed, its splintering into multiple regional internets — is not just inevitable, but already a reality.

The sale reflects the particular concerns in the US and other western democracies over Beijing’s authoritarian regime potentially having access to data held by Chinese companies. China’s national security laws, after all, require all its companies to comply with demands from its security apparatus. TikTok’s owner ByteDance insists it would never hand over users’ information, and US data is stored in the US. Such assurances have not allayed the concerns of the Trump administration. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States ordered ByteDance to sell the US arm.

Some of TikTok’s young western users shrug that they treat it as a given that apps will access and utilise their personal data. But the US and its allies have reason to worry over the uses to which China’s surveillance state might put the information. Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, has pointed to the potential for the Chinese security apparatus to use its facial recognition expertise to build sophisticated databases of users’ personal characteristics, addresses, phone numbers, friends and connections. TikTok, which TechCrunch has called the “Instagram for the mobile video age”, has also developed into a platform for young political and social activists.

China’s foreign ministry said the US decision “exposes the US’s typical double standards”. Regrettable as America’s action will be to those who have nurtured the idea of cyber space as a border-free zone, however, it is only a mirror of what has long been the case in China. Beijing either barred or imposed conditions rejected as unacceptable by Facebook, Google, Twitter and others long ago, and has stringent data localisation laws. The Trump administration’s comments echo China’s own notion of digital sovereignty.

This is, moreover, not just a purely US-China phenomenon. India recently banned 59 of China’s biggest mobile phone apps, including TikTok and WeChat, on the grounds that they pose a threat to the country’s security.

The sale of TikTok in America to US owners is far preferable to the ban Donald Trump mooted on Friday — though the motives for the president’s intervention are murky. A sale to Microsoft, if it goes ahead, would be commercially just, allowing ByteDance to realise value. It would also preserve the business for its millions of devotees and as a competitor to the likes of Facebook.

While it may be inevitable, the carve-up of the internet — and hence the global tech industry — into a series of walled gardens is still regrettable. It is likely to slow innovation by leading to unnecessary duplication and competing standards. Ideally, even if countries adopt their own rules on privacy, data storage, and who can operate within their online borders, it would be preferable for these to develop in a global framework — a kind of World Trade Organization of cyber space. With the WTO already having a hard time, however, such a notion is unlikely ever to get off the ground without a change of leadership in some of the world’s largest economies.

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