Taken together, these efforts suggest a reversal of decades of U.S. policy. Instead of favoring a global Internet of open systems, open architecture and open communications, the United States now envisions a restricted Internet that is cordoned off by governments, with political considerations dominating economic or technological ones.
Let’s be clear. There are legitimate concerns about China’s technology strategy. The country has walled off its cyberspace like no other. The government can force any Chinese company to hand over data. And it routinely engages in international espionage to steal intellectual property, technology and data from other countries. (To be fair, the U.S. government is also in the cyberespionage business in a big way.)
In 2018, ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns TikTok, was forced to shutter its “Neihan Duanzi” (“inside jokes”) app. The young, tech-savvy chief executive, Zhang Yiming, published a letter of self-criticism that read like a confession at a Stalinist show trial. “I profoundly reflect on the fact that a deep-level cause of the recent problems in my company is: a weak [understanding and implementation of] the ‘four consciousnesses’ [of Xi Jinping]. . . . All along, we have placed excessive emphasis on the role of technology, and we have not acknowledged that technology must be led by the socialist core value system,” he wrote.
The Trump administration’s decision on TikTok, however — like so many of its decisions — looks like an arbitrary, impulsive one, made in the heat of the moment, prompted by the timing around the presidential election more than anything else. It does not follow from any clear description of policy that will animate future decisions. In an interview that airs Sunday on my CNN show, Bill Gates reacted to it, saying, “We need principles that are applied broadly and in a predictable way.”
Fears about TikTok seem overblown. The user data on it — names, email addresses, phone numbers, location data — are easy enough to get through other mechanisms. Other apps collect the same information and sell it to anyone who is willing to pay. Meanwhile, the fear that the Chinese Communist Party could spread its values through videos is silly — does anyone believe that Soviet propaganda films from the 1950s and 1960s brainwashed Americans? And to the extent that the app could be used for espionage, the United States and its allies need to defend against those kinds of intrusions from all quarters. The Russians, for example, have used foreign countries and apps as gateways to enter the networks of other countries. Banning one Chinese app will not meaningfully reduce that threat.
The Clean Network program does not even pretend to put forward neutral principles to determine which companies would be banned. It is an explicitly anti-Chinese strategy, one that will be impossible to implement consistently. By its logic, for example, U.S. companies and embassies around the world will have to stop using local phone networks that rely on Chinese equipment. Since dozens of countries — many in Africa — use Huawei, how are Americans supposed to communicate? Carrier pigeons?
The Trump administration has recognized an important danger that emanates from China. The smart way to address it would be to set rules that promote transparent, open systems and mobilize a coalition of like-minded countries to pressure Beijing (and other violators, such as Moscow). Eric Schmidt, who since running Google has chaired the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence and the Defense Innovation Board, told me, “America benefits enormously from having a large open global economy, especially in the technology space. It means greater integration, faster transactions, more innovation. If all this starts eroding, we will face unknown and potentially huge consequences.”
Already we can see that the United States’ new approach has had an effect. Countries around the world — from Britain to India — are embracing the idea of Internet sovereignty. Local companies use this concept to try to maintain their dominance and squash competition. So Facebook raises alarms about TikTok, which has become a fierce competitor. Expect more petitions to Washington in the future.
The U.S. government is now comfortable slapping tariffs on foreign products using bogus national security justifications, selecting companies for special favors (often granted personally by the president) and exercising intrusive control over the Internet. Instead of China adopting the U.S. model, the United States is adopting the Chinese model.