While Trump hasn’t gotten very far with his southern border wall, he may have just laid the first bricks in an American Great Firewall that threatens the future of the internet. Here is a breakdown and brief analysis of Trump’s Executive Orders targeting Tiktok/Wechat and the precedent it could set for the future of America.
Justifying the Tiktok Ban
“TikTok automatically captures vast swaths of information from its users…This data collection threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information.”
As I mentioned before, the Trump administration has provided no evidence to support its claims here. Tiktok does collect data about its users for advertising purposes. It is unclear if Tiktok is any different from Facebook, Twitter, or Youtube in this regard. The only tangible difference between Tiktok and other apps is that Tiktok is owned by BydeDance, a company based in China. I have speculated that Tiktok may have been targeted because the Tulsa fiasco, but I don’t have any proof of that either.
The EO hedges its wording as to whether or not data is shared abroad, projecting a lack of certainty. With no evidence that Tiktok gathers more data than other apps, and no certainty that this data is being shared with another government, the core argument behind the ban is weak at best.
TikTok also reportedly censors content…This mobile application may also be used for disinformation campaigns…such as when TikTok videos spread debunked conspiracy theories about the origins of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus.
ALL social media companies censor to some extent. Private apps and networks are not public forums subject to the First Amendment. Trump has long criticized Facebook, Twitter, and other tech giants for allegedly censoring “conservative” viewpoints. Again, it is unclear as to why Tiktok is being singled out. Besides, many would say that the greatest purveyor of debunked conspiracy theories is the White House itself. I don’t know about you, but I don’t get my coronavirus briefings from teens lip-syncing on Tiktok. Hydroxychloroquine anyone?
Justifying the Wechat Ban
Like TikTok, WeChat automatically captures vast swaths of information from its users….these risks have led other countries, including Australia and India, to begin restricting or banning the use of WeChat.
The justification here is similarly weak, but the EO tries to bolster itself by adding that India and Australia have also targeted Wechat. It is true that India recently banned Wechat. However, despite the EO suggesting otherwise, Australia has not instituted a blanked ban on Wechat or Tiktok. The Australian Prime Minister has even weighed in, stating that “nothing…would suggest to us that security interests have been compromised or Australian citizens have been compromised because…of those applications.”
In addition, the application captures the personal and proprietary information of Chinese nationals visiting the United States, thereby allowing the Chinese Communist Party a mechanism for keeping tabs on Chinese citizens who may be enjoying the benefits of a free society for the first time in their lives.
Okay, let’s show our Chinese visitors how “freedom” works by welcoming them with censored internet and blocking the one app that they use most often. Chinese visitors who cannot share photos of the Washington Monument, cannot video chat with their parents back home, or send a photo of that Chicago pizza they just ate to a friend in Shanghai, are not going to marvel at America’s “free society.” The logic here is laughable.
What is Banned
Section 1. (a) The following actions shall be prohibited beginning 45 days after the date of this order…any transaction by any person, or with respect to any property, subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, with ByteDance Ltd. (a.k.a. Zìjié Tiàodòng), Beijing, China, or its subsidiaries, in which any such company has any interest, as identified by the Secretary of Commerce (Secretary)…
The wording for Wechat and Tiktok here is similar, so I wont post it twice. This is an incredibly vague and broad order. Essentially, Trump is banning any and all transactions with ByteDance and Wechat, with anything or anyone subject to the United State’s jurisdiction. Transactions of what? Monetary transactions? Is posting on Tiktok itself a transaction? Is downloading the app a transaction? The EO leaves the Secretary of Commerce to decide how it is to be interpreted.
Sec. 2. (a) Any transaction by a United States person or within the United States that evades or avoids, has the purpose of evading or avoiding, causes a violation of, or attempts to violate the prohibition set forth in this order is prohibited.
This is the most interesting part, for it appears to suggest that individuals who attempt to circumvent the Tiktok and Wechat bans could find themselves punished under the law. Again this is unclear.
Who Does the Ban Cover?
( c ) the term “United States person” means any United States citizen, permanent resident alien, entity organized under the laws of the United States or any jurisdiction within the United States (including foreign branches), or any person in the United States.
This expands the definition of who this order covers to include “any person in the United States.” This means that a Canadian with Tiktok installed on their phone could be in legal trouble should they “transact” with the app after crossing the border into America. Note also that as of 2019, the Trump administration requires all visa applicants visiting America to disclose all of their social media handles. I’ll say no more.
We are still waiting on clarification, but as the EO is currently written, is exceedingly broad and sets a dangerous precedent. If not legally challenged, the President of the United States has took it upon himself to censor the internet due to an unverified national security “threat.”
Remember that dictatorships like Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and Russia have long used “national security” as justification for banning apps and websites. If this practice is normalized in America, there is nothing standing in the way of Trump or a future President from further stifling the internet at the stroke of a pen. This concern is all the more compounded by the fact that Trump recently suggested that it is “illegal” to criticize him on Twitter and separately signed another Executive Order aimed at enhancing the FCC’s role in determining what kind of speech social media companies can and cannot allow.
This is not about Tiktok or Wechat, it is about the future of the internet and the future of America. We can choose a future of cowering behind walls or we can choose to embrace the world and the richness it affords us. The choice is yours.