How the TikTok Ban Could Set a Dangerous Precedent

Much has been written about the proposed TikTok ban that sailed through the US House on March 13, with some speaking for and against the merits. Unfortunately, much of the debate misses the big pictur...
How the TikTok Ban Could Set a Dangerous Precedent
Written by Matt Milano
  • Much has been written about the proposed TikTok ban that sailed through the US House on March 13, with some speaking for and against the merits. Unfortunately, much of the debate misses the big picture.

    The Goal of the Internet

    The internet was created as a way for researchers and academics to easily and quickly share information. Over the years, as the internet grew and was more widely adopted, the goal of sharing information remained at its core. As it has evolved, the internet’s core function as a way to share information has evolved with it: from text to photos to video and interactive content.

    Throughout its history, advocates have championed the internet’s ability to be a haven for free speech and the ongoing sharing of knowledge.

    Recent Challenges

    Despite its initial goal and design, issues have challenged the status quo. Illegal and harmful material—such as child abuse material—have posed challenges for companies, platforms, and regulators trying to walk the line between respecting the free speech and privacy of the majority versus trying to weed out the harmful minority.

    As society has become more polarized, that debate has extended to political views, philosophical views, religious views, and much more.

    Adding to the issue even more is the geopolitical tensions in play. Some countries have track records of not respecting basic human rights and forcing companies within their borders to cooperate with their surveillance efforts.

    TikTok has become the poster child of that last scenario. With China’s history of surveillance and espionage programs, many Western officials and intelligence experts have grown increasingly worried about the role TikTok could play in Beijing’s efforts, especially given the gargantuan quantity of personal data the social media app can access.

    After years of trying to ban TikTok—by two administrations—a ban or forced sale looks more probable than ever.

    How a TikTok Ban Could Backfire

    While a TikTok ban is likely to occur, what will the fallout be? There are several potential things.

    China will retaliate

    The question of Chinese retaliation is not a matter of if, but when, and how. Already, China is accusing the US of using ‘bullying’ tactics

    “If the pretext of national security can be used to suppress excellent companies from other countries arbitrarily, there is no fairness or justice to speak of,” Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a news briefing, via NBC News.

    “Everyone can clearly see what is bullying behavior and what is tantamount to theft logic,” he added.

    There is little doubt China will retaliate against “excellent companies” from the US, including Apple, Microsoft, Google, and more.

    As NBC News points out, Beijing is already warning that a ban on TikTok would “ultimately backfire on the United States itself.”

    The Rest of the World Will Take Note

    While China often finds itself in the crosshairs for surveillance, it is by no means alone. Few Western countries have engaged in as much surveillance of their own citizens as the US, something that Edward Snowden revealed.

    This reputation has already caused problems for US companies in other markets. For example, the EU has strict data-sharing agreements with the US specifically to govern the transmission of EU citizen data and ensure it does not end up in the hands of US intelligence agencies. In fact, the EU Commission was recently found to be infringing those rules, since it was using Microsoft 365 accounts without the proper safeguards.

    With US lawmakers setting a precedent for banning apps or services because of surveillance and national security concerns, how long will it be until other countries outside of China do the same to US companies, or companies from other countries, over the very same concerns?

    The Free and Open Internet Could Become a Thing of the Past

    If banning apps and services becomes the norm for countries around the world, the Internet will cease to be what it has been for several decades and will no longer facilitate a free flow of information.

    Instead, the internet could easily become a fractured space, divided according to national and regional interests, with users no longer able to easily communicate with friends and family across borders using common services.

    While that scenario may seem far-fetched, one only has to look to China to see how possible it is. Apple and other companies already have to remove access to certain apps and services in that country, meaning Chinese citizens have no way of easily accessing them.

    An Uncertain Future

    Only time will tell how a ban on TikTok will play out, but make no mistake: The internet as we know it may be on the verge of disappearing forever.

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