The US has been locked in an escalating battle with China for the past four years of the Trump presidency. But in the last 12 months, that battle has morphed from a vicious trade war into an ideological schism, and is increasingly centred on the arena most incisive to the ascension of the world’s next superpower: technology.
After petitioning allies to turn their backs on Chinese telecoms company Huawei, the Trump administration has now focused its ire on the hugely popular video app TikTok, and Chinese messaging service WeChat. Trump has issued executive orders against each of the platforms, which will ban US individuals and firms from doing business with two Chinese companies in 45 days. This has led to a scramble for an American company to take over TikTok’s US operations, with Microsoft and Twitter currently vying for ownership.
In addition, the administration has announced an expansion of the country’s ‘Clean Network’ programme – a paranoid and sweeping initiative aimed at excising Chinese companies, including mobile carriers, telecoms companies, apps and cloud-based storage firms, from the US tech ecosystem, in addition to taking measures to prevent underseas cables from being tapped by China for “intelligence gathering […] at hyper scale”.
Many have been quick to point out US hypocrisy in warning about such risks, given its own invasive domestic and international surveillance networks. The Snowden leaks demonstrated that the US itself makes use of undersea cables to gather bulk data about its citizens and those of other countries, while US companies – Google, Facebook and Amazon – are some of the most vociferous guzzlers of data worldwide.
But hypocrisy aside, the move could have seismic repercussions for the longevity of the open and free web as we know it. The US has long championed the globalised internet. Conversely, it has castigated countries such as China, Russia, Iran and Turkey for their more restrictive approaches to the web.
“You’re really seeing the United States adopt a strategy that previously we mostly would have associated with China,” says Josephine Wolff, assistant professor of cybersecurity policy at the Tufts University. “China is a place where services like Facebook or Google are blocked or slowed down significantly, because of concerns about security risks or data collection.”
But perhaps the US’s taste for the global internet was partly because it has a distinctly American flavour. The internet as we know it was originally spun out of a DARPA (US military) project and today, the vast majority of the most powerful internet companies are American. All of the most successful social media apps are American (aside from TikTok). Which begs the question, was the US really embracing the ‘open web’ or merely bolstering the American Internet™ all along?
“One reason [for the Clean Network initiative] is because we are seeing an American president in an American administration that is strongly populist, mercantile, anti-international trade and anti-China,” says Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger, professor of internet governance and regulation at Oxford University. Another reason, he says, is the new tech cold war which is currently taking shape between the US and China, “around information dominance in the world”. “This tech Cold War has all the trappings of the original Cold War – namely, that those sides try to sway the rest of the world into their camps, and try to connect them to their version of the internet.”
The Trump administration has said that security is the reason for the new approach, claiming that both Huawei and TikTok could collect intelligence on US citizens for the Chinese government and compromise their privacy – although they are yet to prove that either has. The Clean Network’s underlying ideology is one of “data nationalism” – the idea that a country’s data should be stored within its own borders “in order to keep it secure and safe from the prying eyes of foreign governments or foreign corporations,” says Anupam Chander, professor of law at Georgetown University and specialist in technology law.
But Wolff says that while the idea that embedding Huawei into core mobile infrastructure could pose security risks might hold some water, in the case of TikTok and WeChat, “the idea that there’s a national security concern because this app that’s owned by a Chinese company is subject to the laws of the Chinese government is a pretty extreme take on sort of what what poses a national security threat in cyberspace […]”
Further to this, she argues that the idea of a ‘clean network’ betrays “a misunderstanding of the internet and what cyber security is about”, saying that the idea of ‘cleanliness’ is “sort of a very dangerous one in some ways”. She says “there’s no possible way to keep all malicious code off the internet” and that the aim of most cyber security initiatives is to build something relatively secure despite knowing that vulnerabilities are out there. “I think this idea that what you’re going to do instead is build this perfectly clean internet is very misleading, because it’s really not something that can be done even by banning apps,” Wolff says.
But many doubt whether Trump’s clean internet initiative is really driven by national security concerns. “Whenever I hear the national security argument in the context of economic transactions, I become suspicious,” says Mayer-Schoenberger. “The beauty of the national security argument is, it’s your get out of jail card. It’s that one trump card that trumps every other card, because whenever you ask for more details, you’re told ‘I’m sorry, I can’t tell you, it’s a national security issue’.” He points out that it’s the same answer China supplies when probed on sensitive issues.
An economic argument is likely at play, given that TikTok’s American operations are currently on the cards to be purchased by an American company and that Trump even mooted the possibility that the treasury would get a cut of the sale. But geopolitical motivations are also evident.
Trump’s anti-China rhetoric has ramped up in recent months pre-election. The Trump administration is attempting to use it as a stick with which to beat Biden, by claiming for example, that if Biden gets in, Americans will soon be speaking Chinese. “There is a kind of Orwellian effort to position China as the US enemy for coalesce support around Trump, who is protecting us from this alleged enemy,” says Chander.
But could there be even more disturbing elements at play? At present, the countries most strongly associated with stricter internet controls and data nationalism initiatives are those with authoritarian governments. Chander, who has co-authored a paper on the topic, finds that a programme of data nationalism is generally complemented by a greater desire for domestic control. He describes two forms of internet controls: the first type limits data coming into the country – e.g. China’s restrictions on Facebook and Youtube – and the latter restricts data leaving the country.
Although Chander says that more internet regulation isn’t always nefarious, “it definitely helps authoritarian governments increase their control over the system”. His paper flags that another common behaviour associated with greater internet control is censorship. While the clean internet bill doesn’t explicitly argue for censorship, it does note that one of the supposed reasons for banning Chinese apps is that they “spread propaganda and disinformation”.
Experts are already concerned that the ban of WeChat and TikTok would infringe free speech, and potentially conflict with the first amendment. Mark Zuckerberg has said that he fears the repercussions could include the indiscriminate censorship of apps in future. The baggy terms ‘propaganda’ and ‘disinformation’ stoke fears that the clean internet initiative could open the floodgates to speech being restricted on specious grounds.
Is the concern that Chinese apps are conduits for propaganda justified? Late last year, it emerged that TikTok moderators were being instructed to remove content related to topics such as Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence or Falun Gong – all topics China wishes to suppress. Since then, the company claims to have corrected this bias. But while this form of censorship is of course undesirable, few could argue that American-owned social media and technology companies don’t demonstrate their own pro-US bias.
The US arguably has more sway than any other country about which content gets removed from American social media platforms outside of direct legislation. (Germany’s NetzDG law requires platforms to remove hate speech for example.) For example, US intelligence officials met with the heads of the major networks in 2018 to discuss how to prevent foreign influence campaigns from affecting the midterm elections. Shortly afterwards, more than 800 independent news and alternative media accounts from across the political spectrum were removed from Facebook on the basis of exhibiting ‘inauthentic behaviour’ (actually, many were real).
In general, the major social media companies are known to comply with US government demands to remove content. In 2009, the US state department even asked Twitter to delay scheduled maintenance during Iran’s Green revolution so as not to disrupt the communications of Tehrani dissidents.
In another move that seems to favour the US, Facebook and Twitter have begun to put identifiers on accounts that receive funding from state-affiliated bodies. For example, Facebook has labelled the news broadcaster Russia Today ‘Russian state affiliated media’, as well as brands owned by the media network Maffick, which claims to be editorially independent of Russia and is taking legal action against the site as a result.
Twitter has said that in addition to a measure of state funding and affiliation, the label is determined by what degree of ‘editorial independence’ the platforms have from the government in question. However, it’s unclear how Twitter would be able to carry out an independent verification of the editorial autonomy of various media organisations.
People were quick to point out that while state-affiliated Chinese and Russian media were swiftly labelled, US government-controlled media such as Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe, and Voice of America were not given corresponding ‘US state affiliated media’ tags. All exist under the umbrella of the US Agency for Global Media (a US government institution). USAGM’s website reads that its mission is aligned with the “National Security Strategy” and “Advancing American Influence,” by using accurate, objective information to foster the American values of democracy and free expression”. As for the media that is labelled state-affiliated, it won’t be censored by Twitter, but it will no longer be ‘amplified’ or recommended to users, making it less visible on the platform.
These cumulative effects can likely be explained by the fact that the major social media firms are subject to greater regulatory and legal oversight in the US, meaning they’re more susceptible to pressure there. But if the Chinese government exerted this kind of sway over TikTok, there would undoubtedly be outcry from western governments. China has always argued that the internet is a tool of US hegemony. If the US continues down the ‘clean internet’ route, is this a tacit admission that China was right all along?
The Verge writer Sarah Jeong uses the term “information nationalism” to describe the Trump administration’s approach to the internet. She writes that information-nationalism “is part of a larger trend toward authoritarianism in the world, but it should still be distinguished from its other facets. It is related to totalitarianism, which frequently relies on propaganda and surveillance, but it is not exactly the same. It walks closely with fascism, which thrives on mythologizing shared national identities.” She argues that the US, China and Russia are the three actors currently engaged most strongly in information nationalism, and that the banning of apps and regulation of speech on social media platforms are two of “the battles that make up information-nationalist warfare”.
Some have argued that, in fact, the break-up and hence, greater localised control over the internet is desirable and even good for “democracy” (for example, a recent Financial Times op-ed). Two US academics similarly argued in a recent Atlantic article that actually, China’s approach to the internet was right all along, and it’s time for the US to play catch up. On the other hand, technologists and free speech advocates largely balk at the prospect of the so-called splinternet.
They argue that greater localised control over the internet gives bad actors more room to exploit it. Given authoritarianism is on the rise globally, including in the US, a move towards a balkanised internet – cutting off the channels of global information and stifling cross-border exchange of speech and values – could come with grievous consequences.