This month, Washington indicated that it might be willing to build a wall of its own by threatening a ban on two of the most popular Chinese-owned apps in the world: TikTok and WeChat.
Trump’s moves risk further fracturing the global internet, upending families and online communities, and disrupting the flow of tech investment and innovation in both countries, without necessarily putting in place a set of policies to ensure popular apps — be they from China or the US — guarantee the privacy and security of their users.
“The solution can’t be to undermine the free flow of information that underpins the internet,” said Susan Ariel Aaronson, an expert on internet governance at George Washington University. “What worries me is that the US is becoming China by trying to block off apps.”
The two apps targeted by Trump also pose unique challenges, further muddying the issue.
Tencent has long faced accusations of censorship and surveillance, making WeChat a poster child for the privacy and free speech concerns often expressed about some Chinese apps. But cutting it off entirely from the US would come with its own costs for American and Chinese users.
With TikTok, the privacy issues are murkier, given the app does not appear to behave that differently from its US competitors. Its treatment also raises questions about whether Washington could ever trust a Chinese app of its scale.
But the Trump administration appears to be taking a one-size-fits-all approach to Chinese-owned apps, in a way that risks not only conflating the issues with each, but potentially undermining the administration’s own case for the crackdowns in the first place.
What we do (and don’t) know about WeChat and TikTok
WeChat and TikTok are both social media applications with millions of users around the world and owned by Chinese parent companies. But they have different histories and concerns.
TikTok is an app used by teenagers for sharing silly videos, so its inclusion in any conversation about national security may seem bizarre to some observers.
There is “no information captured from TikTok that would be useful to Chinese intelligence,” said James Lewis, an expert on technology policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
But Trump has accused the app of capturing “vast swaths of information from its users,” such as location data and browsing and search histories, which “threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information — potentially allowing China to track the locations of Federal employees and contractors, build dossiers of personal information for blackmail, and conduct corporate espionage.”
On paper, at least, TikTok does not collect significantly more data than rivals such as Facebook and Google, which gather such information for targeting advertising. In fact, it may collect less, given that users are uploading less personal information to the app than they do on other social media platforms.
The extent to which WeChat collects information, meanwhile, has long raised security concerns — as has Tencent’s close relationship to the Chinese Communist Party.
For example, cybersecurity experts in the Tibetan exile community in Dharamsala have pointed to the prevalence of WeChat as a potential reason for a drop in hacking attacks on members in recent years.
“Any type of message or content shared on WeChat is very likely under heavy surveillance [by] the Chinese government,” said Samm Sacks, a China and cybersecurity expert at New America, a Washington DC-based think tank.
China has been firing back at Washington for targeting the apps.
Accusations of hypocrisy do not mean Washington should be blind to the potential threats posed by Chinese apps — or any apps — when it comes to data security and free speech, but both could be protected without necessarily banning or blocking foreign services.
“The question is, how do we make the app system more secure overall?” said Sacks. “We need to spend more time on legislation and standards where you have a trusted set of criteria for all platforms. So whether you’re TikTok or some random weather app, in order to operate you have to be audited, approved under these more strict cybersecurity practices.”
A similar approach could be taken on the issue of censorship, with standards set for how apps should be expected to protect their users’ free speech and avoid exposing them to misinformation.
“It’s time for the US to get its own vision for internet governance,” Sacks said. “How do you govern massive amounts of data that’s collected on these platforms?”