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The xenophobic, un-American TikTok ban

A phone showing TikTok with the Chinese flag in the background

The requirement for TikTok to relinquish Chinese ownership or face a nationwide ban was signed into law today, as an add-on to a foreign aid bill:

But even as ridiculous as it is to tack on a TikTok ban to foreign spending support, Biden had made it clear he supported the TikTok ban anyway. Still, it does seem notable that, when signing the bill, Biden didn’t even mention the TikTok ban in his remarks.

This is a couple of years after Meta, clearly threatened by the app’s enormous growth, started employing a PR firm to kick off an anti-TikTok campaign.

There are a few worries at play:

  • TikTok will irresponsibly collect enormous amounts of data about hundreds of millions of Americans, something no other social network would ever do
  • There’s a possibility that TikTok will be used to spread propaganda, unlike every other social network
  • TikTok is Chinese, not American

The third is most pertinent. These are clearly things — gathering data, spreading propaganda — that only American companies should do to Americans (or to the rest of the world).

Ironically, banning a service from the open internet nationwide is exactly the kind of thing that China has done again and again through its Great Firewall. Rather than protect American users through the kinds of far-reaching privacy legislation that we need, government chose to address TikTok alone on the basis of what amounts to xenophobic protectionism.

It’s the kind of xenophobia we saw at a Senate hearing on child safety earlier in the year:

“You often say that you live in Singapore,” Cotton said before demanding to know where Chew’s passport was from (Singapore, obviously) and whether he’d applied for citizenship in China or the US (no, said Chew). “Have you ever been a member of the Chinese Communist Party?” he then asked abruptly, as if hoping to catch Chew by surprise. Chew’s response wasn’t shocked so much as fed up. “Senator! I’m Singaporean!” he reiterated. “No.” (Singapore is not part of China.)

The Verge further made this point:

It’s not even necessary to make the case that China might have undue influence over TikTok. Apple, for instance, has weathered years of critiques about its relationship to the Chinese government; no reasonable person has ever suggested this hinges on Tim Cook being a secret communist. Instead, it’s a line of questioning that seems simply designed to play on Chew’s foreignness — even when it’s got nothing to do with the topic at hand.

It’s not that TikTok is particularly harmful compared to other similar apps: it’s that we’re deathly afraid of China.

I find it unsettling that a global platform - the internet, that is - which seeks to connect everyone in the world is being undermined for Americans in this way. Should this precedent spiral, it’s not unreasonable to think that more foreign services that threaten American incumbents will be banned or forced to divest. The result would be a National Internet, culturally and economically cut off from the rest of the world: something so dystopian that I’ve written it into science fiction stories.

Beyond nationalism, the propaganda argument may ironically cover for the fact that viewers are likely to encounter a wider range of international viewpoints:

Anti-China hysteria may be completely grounded in xenophobia, but some legislators clearly also don’t care for the content of TikTok. Raja Krishnamoorthi, an Illinois Democrat supportive of the anti-TikTok legislation, recently raised concerns over TikTok’s content recommendations. TikTok has been criticized for presenting its users with “pro-Palestinian” content. It has been a major source of videos of the unfolding atrocities in Gaza, and a ban of TikTok could, as the Independent’s Io Dodds reports, “clobber the pro-Palestine movement,” supporters of which have used the platform effectively for communication.

Current Affairs concludes:

The disconnect between the American people’s interests and the priorities of national politicians has never been more stark. We need to resist their attempt to get us to be afraid of Chinese people, and to control platforms where viewpoints unfavorable to U.S. imperialism are given a public airing.

This in itself feels un-American: a violation of the democratic rights enshrined in the First Amendment and the principle of free speech. We have the right to learn about those viewpoints, and to receive media created elsewhere in the world. Just as on the web itself, which allows us to learn about the world from a variety of perspectives, we’re richer for it.

I imagine there will be a battery of lawsuits from the international investors who actually own TikTok on the back of this legislation. It’ll be interesting to see what happens, and what the response from other nations will be.

Personally, I just think it’s stupid.

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