For years following the 2016 US presidential election, social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter were embroiled in a constant string of scandals. But despite their obvious shortcomings, there appeared to be no alternative. The stage was set for a challenger when TikTok exploded onto the scene in 2018, following its merger with musical.ly. The growth of the video-sharing app got an additional boost during the pandemic and has since become a central node in global culture as its highly effective algorithm has kept users — particularly young people — constantly coming back for more.
It’s exactly the type of story that’s usually celebrated by the tech industry and its boosters in media and government: a tech company launches a new product and it achieves massive user growth in just a few years, proving stiff competition for incumbents and creating a significant cultural footprint. But such praise is not forthcoming in the case of TikTok, because ByteDance, which owns the platform, is a Chinese company. For the first time, a Chinese social media app is effectively challenging the dominance of its US competitors. Consequently its rise is being greeted primarily with fear, not celebration.
Now we’re waiting to see if the Biden administration will ban the app in the United States, citing concerns over Chinese surveillance capacities. The proposal runs counter to decades of US tech policy, which has promoted the global expansion of the internet at all costs. To justify this policy approach, US policymakers have tended to frame any restriction on internet access as a violation of people’s right to free speech. But free speech was never the end goal: in reality, the concept of a global, unfiltered internet has been primarily attractive insofar as it ensures that US companies maintain their market dominance. Now that their dominance is being challenged, the supposed defenders of a free and open internet are singing a different tune.
The US Turn Against China
For decades the United States primarily regarded China as a source of unlimited cheap labor and low-cost goods, not as a real potential economic and geopolitical competitor. That attitude started changing during the Barack Obama era, and US policy changed significantly during the Donald Trump era, as US officials began openly scaremongering about the threat of Chinese technological development.
The Trump administration imposed restrictions on Huawei equipment, attempted to ban TikTok and WeChat, and promoted a vision for a “Clean Network” that would exclude technologies developed in China. Rather than backpedal the actions of his predecessor, Joe Biden doubled down on the campaign against Chinese technology, presenting it as a national security risk and casting it as part of wider conflict between the United States and China.
After banning TikTok from US government devices and getting many other Western countries to follow suit, the Biden administration is now indicating that it might force TikTok’s Chinese owners to sell their shares under the threat of total ban. The government’s stated concerns center on TikTok’s collection of user data and the assertion that data could be accessed by the Communist Party of China (CPC) to gain a geopolitical edge over the United States. But those justifications for the hawkish position gaining increasing support in the United States have little factual grounding.
In recent years, TikTok has made agreements with Oracle to store US data and outlined plans for additional data centers in Ireland and Norway to address data security concerns on both sides of the Atlantic. Counter to the claims of some US lawmakers, TikTok is a private company, not a state-owned enterprise under the sway of the CPC. In truth, if the CPC wanted access to US user data, it has many easier ways of getting access to it through a vast web of shady data brokers that don’t involve placing a target on TikTok — you know, like the FBI and Department of Homeland Security already do.
Data collection and its improper use are not just a TikTok problem, but a wider issue that involves the rest of the social media apps and many other tech companies besides. The US government’s desire to ban TikTok instead of taking industry-wide action is a good indication that its campaign isn’t really about national security or data protection, but something much deeper: namely the preservation of American economic and geopolitical hegemony.
Digital rights organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation have been using this as an opportunity to call for consumer privacy legislation that would apply across the entire industry. To be clear, that would be a welcome development — but the effort to ban TikTok also shows the flaws in the approach of digital rights organizations that dominate conversations about tech policy.
In the digital rights framing, a TikTok ban would primarily be a violation of users’ freedom of speech under the First Amendment. It would not only take away a platform where millions of people communicate with one another, but also the opportunity for a smaller number of “creators” to earn some income or even make a living from their posts.
The argument isn’t entirely wrong, but it’s guided by a libertarian framing of the internet as a challenge to state power that has never reflected reality. As a result, it doesn’t push back on the framing of China as the enemy, nor does it explain why the United States is shifting its policy on technology in this moment.
How the Internet Served US Interests
In Internet for the People, Ben Tarnoff explains that during the 1990s, “the internet abruptly died, and a different one appeared.” That was the decade when the internet, which was the product of publicly funded research, was finally handed over to the private sector. Counter to the framing of digital rights organizations, it allowed corporations to completely colonize the nascent digital environment and shape its development, but not without the assistance of the state.
In 1989, Senator Al Gore made the case that “the nation which most completely assimilates high-performance computing into its economy will very likely emerge as the dominant intellectual, economic, and technological force in the next century.” He saw the digital technologies taking hold in that moment as a means of extending US power, and that was particularly the case with the internet. As Daniel Greene explains in The Promise of Access, the internet was “an instrument of soft power” that became an important means of expanding the global influence of the United States and the market for its tech companies.
Seen through that lens, the notion that governments around the world had to ensure unfettered access to the internet lest they violate the rights of their citizens was part of a larger neoliberal framework that included expectations of free trade and unrestricted capital flows. Those politics further empowered US and Western capital at the expense of other countries’ domestic tech industries.
In the United States, such an approach to the internet was presented as a means of protecting free speech abroad, but it also ensured governments around the world had a hard time challenging the global dominance of US tech companies. If governments tried to restrict them in favor of domestic alternatives, they would be accused of an authoritarian crackdown.
China’s “Great Firewall” is indeed a tool of internet censorship that allows the Chinese government to restrict users’ access to particular topics. But more importantly, it’s a form of economic protectionism that limits the activities of foreign technology companies to allow domestic firms to innovate and grow so they can eventually become internationally competitive. China applied long-standing lessons on the use of trade barriers and industrial policy to develop domestic industry to the internet era, and it’s clearly been very successful. But that would’ve been virtually impossible if it hadn’t placed restrictions on foreign competition.
The US Is Protecting Its Tech Capitalists
After decades of claiming that banning internet services and restricting citizens’ access to certain parts of the web is authoritarian overreach, the United States is now toying with those very policies. Digital rights arguments don’t provide an adequate explanation for its reversal. Instead, we need to look at geopolitics and political economy if we’re to truly understand what’s happening in the tech industry.
The reality is that for decades, speech-based arguments have been used to justify the global dominance of US tech companies and, by extension, the continued technological supremacy of the United States. China’s refusal to abide by those expectations and effectively use industrial policy to develop its domestic capacities are what has allowed it to become a serious challenger to the control of the United States over cutting-edge technology, and that’s something the US government will not allow.
TikTok is not being targeted because it’s a greater threat to Americans’ privacy and security than any of the other social media apps on their phones, but because it poses a serious challenge to US services like Facebook and Instagram. It’s no coincidence that just as Silicon Valley was coming under greater scrutiny for antitrust action, some of its most prominent executives started becoming much more vocal about the Chinese boogeyman. Meta has been funding a campaign against TikTok while trying to entice creators back to its platforms, and antitrust efforts have faced major setbacks as the government’s focus has shifted to combating Chinese tech competition.
The United States is deceptively casting its campaign against Chinese tech companies as a civilizational battle, positioning itself as the defender of Western democracy from Chinese authoritarian communism, to get its citizens on board. Policymakers want people to overlook how the United States built its own unparalleled surveillance infrastructure with the help of Silicon Valley and how its venture capitalists are still heavily invested in Chinese companies like ByteDance and even funding Chinese competitors to ChatGPT. That’s not to mention how its own democracy is in deep jeopardy, and its political institutions seem unable to mount an effective response.
The TikTok ban saga isn’t just a free speech issue. It’s something greater. The United States is drawing a firmer line between itself and China to try to defend its global hegemony and technological supremacy from a rising power, and in particular to protect Silicon Valley from the first real competition it’s faced in decades. This conflict isn’t about what’s best for the public or the protection of supposed Western values from foreigners who would undermine them. It’s about power, profit, and ensuring the US capitalist class stays in control of the global order.