President Trump has signed an executive order declaring that both TikTok and WeChat will be banned in the United States within 45 days. At the same time, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has released a comprehensive roadmap for denying Chinese companies access to United States infrastructure. The text of both executive orders reads, in part:
Specifically, the spread in the United States of mobile applications developed and owned by companies in the People’s Republic of China (China) continues to threaten the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.
In order to safeguard US citizens and interests, both TikTok and WeChat must be banned. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Pompeo has released a five-point Clean Network program that is intended to make certain that Chinese carriers are not connected to US telecom networks, that “untrusted applications” are removed from mobile app stores, that US companies are not making their applications available on the storefronts of untrusted partners, that US data is not being stored on servers owned by Alibaba, Baidu, or Tencent, and that undersea cables are not being subverted by foreign operatives for spying.
The text of these orders raise significant questions about the ability of the President to make unilateral policy via executive order and the degree to which US government policies should exert market control over corporate behavior.
Over the past year, I’ve written multiple stories about how US companies have been willing to give in to Chinese demands to control the speech of private citizens in the US, even going so far as to get a low-level hotel social media employee fired for the crime of liking a tweet that shared an article featuring her employer. There have been a number of troubling instances where US companies like Google actively partnered with the Chinese government to spy on its own citizens more effectively. China has also imprisoned the Uighur ethnic minority in camps and treated them as a slave labor force. Any concrete action that addresses these concerns is going to have a governmental as well as a corporate component and I generally agree with the Trump Administration’s decision to have a conversation on this topic in a way that has been lacking in both Democrat and Republican administrations dating back at least to the late 1990s, though the effort won’t help US companies whose IP has already been stolen. At the same time, however, the paper trail on TikTok and WeChat does not match what we know about companies like Huawei.
Where Huawei is concerned, the government has articulated fears that the firm could build backdoors into its products and that its position as a 5G hardware provider could allow it to build backdoors into its products that are impossible to close. It is unclear what fundamental threat TikTok or WeChat pose to either American infrastructure or American citizens, and the broad language of Secretary of State Pompeo’s declaration gives some cause for concern. The “Cloud” section of the article above declares that the US will act “To prevent U.S. citizens’ most sensitive personal information and our businesses’ most valuable intellectual property, including COVID-19 vaccine research, from being stored and processed on cloud-based systems accessible to our foreign adversaries through companies such as Alibaba, Baidu, and Tencent.”
What constitutes “most sensitive personal information?” The document does not say. This is not a trivial question. If “most sensitive personal information” is defined as “Private medical records and financial histories,” people would be unlikely to argue. If “most sensitive personal information” includes credit card numbers, you’ve just made a case for outlawing League of Legends based on the fact that Riot Games processes credit card data. Tencent, after all, owns Riot. It owns a hefty share in Epic Games, too.
I cannot recall another time when the US government declared that a foreign company had 45 days to sell itself to a US firm (Microsoft, in TikTok’s case) or face a complete operating ban. I also do not recall any previous time when the President of the United States declared that the US government expected a bribe — pardon me, “key money” — in return for facilitating the purchase. One imagines the author of this Bloomberg article writing it with a drink in one hand and several empties already on the table. Regardless of one’s political leanings, interjections of this sort do not make evaluating the national security implications of global political changes any easier. Similarly, what exactly is contemplated by the criticism of US companies selling applications in app markets overseas? Previous technology export restrictions, lifted decades ago, did not contemplate banning a TikTok-like application (if such had existed). If anything, the popularity of a US application in the Chinese market would have been more likely to be viewed as a demonstration of soft power.
While the national security implications of closer ties with China have deservedly been criticized, there have been only general data privacy concerns raised about products like TikTok and WeChat. Many, though not all, of those concerns apply to US companies as well and the manner in which they secure (or, rather, don’t secure) the data of US citizens. If the Trump Administration wants to articulate a set of policies by which current and future Chinese software and hardware will be evaluated on national security grounds, that may well be within the scope of its purview, but the standards should be transparent and fairly applied. If a company violates them, Americans who used the applications deserve to know exactly why they are being banned — with specifics, not vague hand-waved gestures towards potential risk.
It is imperative that we not declare the data mining practices of foreign firms illegal solely because they are foreign firms. Daily, it seems, we learn more about how various companies have invented various means of tracking people. Many of these methods are based on incredibly intrusive practices — one federal contractor just acknowledged embedding tracking spyware into dozens of APIs that were incorporated into third-party products with zero oversight, with the intent of using this information for law enforcement purposes. No, this isn’t the same as throwing members of an ethnic minority into forced labor camps. That doesn’t make it good. Many of the same companies caught engaging in unethical actions in China, like Google, built the US ecosystem that’s now systemically used to strip-mine our privacy for profit. Pretending the problem is solely an overseas issue allows US companies to skirt blame for their own egregious actions.
Matt Stoller, quoting Lucas Kunce, also makes an excellent argument here, pointing out that the entire reason TikTok is an American fad to begin with is because Facebook actively used its market clout to kill Vine, Twitter’s version of TikTok, while giving TikTok huge amounts of advertising. In other words, we now have a Chinese competitor sitting in an American market because an American company was allowed to abuse its monopolistic power. Facebook launched Reels this week, as a direct competitor to TikTok at a time when the federal government is proposing to ban the company. While I am not accusing the Trump Administration of acting in deliberate concert with Facebook, President Trump’s declaration that the US government should get a cut of the still-theoretical sale of TikTok’s US business to Microsoft, combined with Facebook’s decision to launch a new TikTok competitor now, looks like the federal government “picking winners and losers” (to borrow an old phrase) far more overtly than any decision to award grant money to a bad solar company in the aftermath of the Great Recession.
These issues are complex because there are few actions the federal government takes that don’t have implications for someone in a “win/lose” context at some point. NASA’s decision to tap SpaceX for launches literally saved the company by funding its development. Was the government “picking winners and losers,” or was it “Providing funding for the long-term development of US national interests in space by collaborating with a corporate partner?” How you answer that question depends on how important you think space travel is, how good a partner you think SpaceX has been, and who you think should be paying for it. Real-world politics never condenses into sound bites as easily as some wish it did.
For an additional perspective on this issue I recommend The Verge’s writeup, which focuses on an issue the author nicknames information-nationalism. Information-nationalism, as described, is the idea that discussing problems at home or confronting, say, historic inequalities in how America treats people weakens our ability, as a nation, to call out these problems abroad. It views containment of this type of discussion as essential to the capability to project power in other respects because acknowledging fault is seen as equivalent to acknowledging weakness.
Such arguments are dangerous because they can easily become justification for internal censorship. The President’s repeatedly-stated belief that testing more people for COVID-19 is literally the reason that America’s disease figures are terrible is an easy example of how this kind of thinking can lead directly to a justification for suppressing information: If acknowledging the truth of the pandemic makes America look weak, the solution is not to improve the quality of America’s pandemic response, but to stop testing people. As The Verge notes, that’s basically the same argument the Chinese government uses as a justification for suppressing conversation around events like the Tienanmen Square Massacre.
There are good reasons to be suspicious of China, but the question of inappropriate surveillance is not unique to China. US citizens do not deserve to have their lives mined for corporate profits regardless of whether the miners are domestic or foreign and any effort to create new rules on these issues should center data privacy and security for American citizens first and foremost. The idea that these practices are deployed purely in benign ways in this country and that the only real abuses occur elsewhere is a set of cultural blinders we do not have the luxury of wearing.