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The close ties between China’s tech companies and its authoritarian government have started to catch the Trump administration’s attention.
The partnership between Chinese tech companies and the Chinese Communist Party is threatening global Internet freedom. But the U.S. has the chance to push back and safeguard online free speech and privacy worldwide.
Last Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News’s Laura Ingraham that the U.S. is “certainly looking at” banning TikTok, a video-sharing social-media platform owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, over its ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Pompeo cited the threat of “Chinese surveillance” to national security, as TikTok user data is surely being passed on to the CCP. A day later, in an interview with Greta Van Susteren, President Trump took a different tack, listing a ban on TikTok as “one of many” potential ways to punish the Chinese government for its hand in the coronavirus pandemic.
TikTok is no stranger to U.S. scrutiny. Government agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security have banned the app for security reasons. And last year, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and Justice Department investigated the company after it was alleged to have used data from users under 13 years of age in violation of American privacy laws. It was recently reported that the app may have failed to address regulators’ concerns on that front.
It might seem strange that an app known for making harmless, entertaining videos go viral would be the center of so much controversy. But the problem isn’t the content TikTok allows users to share with the world; it’s the company’s meticulous collection of user data and its close, troubling relationship with the CCP.
Parent company ByteDance is allegedly working with the CCP in its surveillance efforts. Just as unsettling, the app has been accused of aiding Chinese propaganda efforts through the use of “shadow bans,” fiddling with the app’s algorithm so that users — even users outside China — don’t see content concerning Tiananmen Square or the Hong Kong protests. For instance, in 2019, TikTok user Feroza Aziz had her account suspended after posting a makeup tutorial that secretly condemned China’s mass detention and abuse of Uighur Muslims in Xianjiang Province.
Such abuses are not limited to TikTok. Other Chinese tech companies have done the CCP’s bidding inside and outside China as well. According to an Australian Strategic Policy Institute report, Chinese tech giants such as Huawei, Tencent, and Alibaba are using artificial intelligence to collect users’ data and aid and abet China in fulfilling its global ambitions.
And what are those ambitions? One is obviously the legitimizing of the CCP’s dictatorship abroad. But China may also be seeking to normalize authoritarianism more generally. For instance, TikTok has reportedly censored criticisms of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s authoritarian president.
It’s like a virtual Belt and Road Initiative, in which viral dance videos replace seemingly good-faith investments as the vehicle for the spread of CCP influence.
In the face of China’s threats to the freedom of the world’s Internet, the Trump administration should be applauded for considering a ban on TikTok. As Chinese censorship, surveillance, and propaganda spread worldwide, the U.S. has a chance to fight back and change the trajectory of the Information Age for the better. At a press conference on Wednesday, Pompeo said that “the infrastructure of this next hundred years must be a communications infrastructure that’s based on a Western ideal of private property and protection of private citizens’ information in a transparent way.” He added, however, that realizing that vision would be difficult: “It’s a big project, because we’ve got partners all around the world where infrastructure crosses Chinese technology and then comes to the United States.”
It won’t be easy, but it must be done. Nothing less than global Internet freedom is at stake.