Can the Digital Economy Survive in a Splinternet?
On September 18, the US administration announced that it would ban new downloads of the TikTok and WeChat apps. Then, on September 19, the plan was halted when President Donald Trump gave tentative approval to a deal that involved the creation of a new, US-settled substance called TikTok Worldwide. As part of the new deal, Oracle and Walmart would own a combined 20 percent of the newly created entity; the remaining 80 percent would be owned by ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company.
While decisions related to both apps have been postponed, the proposed ban — and the deal that followed — raises a number of questions about government power over foreign technology firms, cross-border data flows, and about the state of the global internet.
Upon the proposed boycott, we asked five specialists what a patriot way to deal with stage administration could mean for the computerized economy. This article aggregates their reactions.
Susan Ariel Aaronson, the Middle for Worldwide Administration Advancement
There are two issues coloring US response to Chinese platforms: economics and national security. Regarding economics, China’s big platforms grew up under the Great Firewall, where they were protected and nurtured. With economies of scale and scope for data, the firms learned to excel in data-driven services and compete effectively in more open markets such as Canada and the United States. Regarding national security, China is good at stealing and, buying data legally, as well as buying data-rich firms and creating apps that acquire personal data. China can use that data, cross data sets, and gain new insights into the behavior of Americans, creating a national security threat.
What is the appropriate response? First, the Great Firewall must be challenged as a trade barrier (an international response). It also reduces competition among ideas, which are a public good. The Great Firewall hurts China and the Chinese people, who have less access to information. Governments should also go after firms that supply infrastructure for the Great Firewall. Second, the United States needs a national online personal data protection law. The US people have little control over how their data is used and monetized. Finally, app companies need to effectively monitor app stores. Google, Microsoft, Garmin, Apple, etc., all fail to adequately review apps to make sure they are only taking the data that is essential to app function. The United States and other countries need laws limiting how apps can take and utilize personal data.
Anupam Chander, Georgetown University
I didn’t figure we could at any point see an Extraordinary Firewall of America, yet that is the very thing that the Trump organization has brought us. The fanciful TikTok/WeChat boycotts will act as a horrendous point of reference. The US requested information limitation as a value of TikTok’s proceeded with activity in the US, but it went even further — demanding that it be majority-owned by Americans. If other nations borrow this precedent, it will be the American social media and communications companies that suffer, as our own intelligence services have been known for mass hoovering up of data (although our laws have improved somewhat — while other nations’ surveillance agencies often have few legal restraints). Our actions will serve as a poor precedent for others, inviting them to further break up the internet into national domains. The actions against TikTok and WeChat were largely motivated by domestic political objectives — allowing the Trump administration to distract from domestic calamities by pointing fingers at a foreign villain. A better solution is to have a legal framework that protects fundamental rights to privacy, security and speech, regardless of where data flows.
Robert Fay, the Centre for International Governance Innovation
The moves the US is initiating against TikTok and WeCom [Tencent’s fast rebrand of WeChat to keep away from the approaching ban] all the while assuming a pretense of public safety have maybe inadvertently featured a critical worldwide issue: the lack of effective governance over the use and monetization of personal data. Of course, because these actions are directed toward China, it is more about technological supremacy and how data can be used to generate valuable intellectual property and wealth, such as the underlying algorithms that drive social media platforms. Instead, we need to take a globally comprehensive approach to data governance that breaks down barriers, including the Great Firewall and addresses the very valid concerns over how personal data may be used. This includes not only those in China but also those in the United States. Instead of ad hoc actions, we need global rules. It is time for a Digital Stability Board.
Dipayan Ghosh, the Berkman Klein Center
This is the splinternet happening before our eyes. We are seeing three divergent approaches to internet governance take shape — with the Chinese framework typified by state control, the European situation zeroed in on individual freedoms, and, at long last, an American one that over the long run has advanced from open private enterprise to something that looks progressively defensive of homegrown economic interests, thanks to President Trump’s political motivations. That is the key: given the absence of any clear evidence that TikTok has shared US user data with Chinese authorities, the administration’s decision appears to be political — and we can expect China to throw its own economic attacks at the United States in response. The good news for the interests of global internet governance is that because the decision does have Trump’s electoral politics written all over it, a more general policy shift can easily be reconsidered by a more stable and transparent administration if and when political circumstances shift — although it appears as though the TikTok split-up will move forward at this stage, and this will no doubt irk the Chinese government.
Blayne Haggart, the Centre for International Governance Innovation
The actual decision to ban TikTok and WeChat downloads is little more than capricious grandstanding by an incompetent administration that barely understands the games it’s playing. The irony is that internet governance has tended to reflect the interests of the United States and its companies, namely, global market dominance. “Net nationalism” is often merely an acknowledgment that this type of governance does not always suit non-dominant countries. The term also hides the extent to which the current regime promotes the national interests of dominant (mostly American) players. To be blunt, such an overt display of dominance is pure foolishness coming from the world’s leading digital economy, whose power lies in the promotion of the idea of free and open internet, not in bullying foreign companies out of its market, or in shaking them down to give American companies a piece of the action. It can’t help but hasten the trend toward an internet that less reflects US strategic interests. But it’s also par for the course for an administration that has consistently failed to understand that the United States’ true power lies in its promotion of open borders, trade, and data.
By the day’s end, the TikTok/WeChat disaster is an interruption from the more extended term challenge of public computerized monetary contest. The US, China, and the European Association, to name unquestionably the greatest players, all have different ideas about how the global digital economy should be run. This is an issue that predates Trump and will long outlast him.