When rumors that the Trump administration planned to ban TikTok first circulated in mid-July, many critics were skeptical that it was even possible. The popular video-sharing app, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, was alleged in a class-action lawsuit filed in December of last year to be collecting invasive amounts of user data that could potentially be used to identify, profile and track the app’s users.
Since then, several experts have pointed out that the amount of data that TikTok collects isn’t really that different from what its American competitors have been vacuuming up for more than a decade. What is different about TikTok is that the company didn’t emerge—like most of its competitors—from Silicon Valley.
Trump has claimed that TikTok’s Chinese ownership presents national security concerns, and pundits have been quick to back him. But given how little his administration seems to be concerned with the data mining perpetuated by California’s Big Tech firms, this feels more like political posturing than an attempt to protect TikTok’s American users.
Of course, none of that should absolve TikTok of its wrongdoing. Not only does the app collect unnecessary user data, the platform has a poor track record when it comes to freedom of expression, arbitrarily banning content that its censors find distasteful, or that China’s ruling party finds unacceptable. While platforms like Facebook may be more transparent about their rules, those rules too reflect the values of the company’s leadership and the society in which they grew up. In other words, Facebook users in other countries are sometimes subject to rules they find just as absurd as a US user might find TikTok’s.
TikTok’s critics have suggested that the platform is subject to Chinese government censorship requests, despite the company’s claims to the contrary, reflected in its transparency reporting. Even if it were, that’s hardly any different from the behavior of Silicon Valley companies—although many (but not all) refuse to comply with China, they most certainly remove content at the behest of even more despotic governments, such as that of Saudi Arabia.
Blocking apps is not without precedent
Although the US attempt to ban TikTok has been called “unprecedented,” it really isn’t.
Online censorship is nearly as old as the Web itself. Since the 1990s, governments—both democratic and authoritarian in nature—have engaged in filtering and blocking of undesirable (or in today’s euphemistic parlance, “harmful”) content. From Tunisia to Sweden to the United Arab Emirates (where many American tech firms have outposts), Internet censorship is sadly quite common.
In recent years, blocking apps has become an increasingly popular tactic. While China—which bans Facebook and Twitter, among others—may lead the pack, a number of other countries block popular apps for a variety of reasons. India, for instance, has been accused of blocking apps as a kind of “techno-nationalism”—in other words, wanting to keep that precious user data for use by its own companies. Others may do so for economic reasons, or under the guise of national security.
Although the US government hasn’t engaged in the same type of Internet censorship as many other countries, it is far from innocent, particularly when it comes to meddling with other countries’ access to content. In 2012, the State Department famously called on YouTube to take down an anti-Islam video, fearing it would spark riots. The company refused, but geo-blocked the video in Libya and Egypt instead, presumably at the request of the US. And there is little doubt that the government has worked behind the scenes with tech firms to remove terrorist content.
Most egregiously, the government’s sanctions regime against several countries includes, effectively, a ban on countless apps and technologies produced by US companies. For instance, until the Obama administration issued a special license to permit such applications, apps such as the Google Play store and Coursera were blocked for users in Sudan. Similarly, Google and Apple both blocked apps from access in Crimea at the behest of the US government.
US companies still block residents of Iran from accessing dozens of important apps and other technologies as a result of sanctions—despite a general license intended to alleviate some of the restrictions. While this can be chalked up to overly cautious lawyering on the companies’ part, the State Department has done little to intervene, ignoring calls from civil society organizations for help.
But perhaps most interesting about Trump’s decision to ban TikTok is how closely it tracks with China’s own censorship tactics. By mimicking China’s tactics under the guise of “national security,” the US government is demonstrating that it is no better than the country it has long criticized for its vast censorship apparatus.
Rather than this political posturing, the US government could instead focus on creating a standard for privacy for companies operating within its borders. It could push companies to be transparent about their content moderation standards and accountable to their users.
Don’t be fooled: The Trump administration doesn’t care about Internet freedom. To them, this is just another needless game.