On Friday the president of the United States declared that he intends to ban a vibrant source of American speech. And that he intends to eliminate competition in a giant industry that doesn’t have nearly enough of it. It’s a rare feat to upturn two such fundamental democratic values—free speech and free markets—at the same time.
TikTok’s fate in the US remains uncertain. Trump’s declarations could be part of a negotiating strategy, with the intended goal of getting Bytedance, TikTok’s Chinese parent company, removed entirely from the platform’s ownership. Microsoft may then swoop in. Trump’s proposed executive order could face legal review, and TikTok has vowed that it’s “not planning on going anywhere.” But regardless of how this all shakes out, the president’s declaration stinks of hypocrisy.
It’s certainly true that all Chinese companies must play footsie with the state, sharing data if and when the ruling Communist Party demands it. (TikTok has consistently denied that it has done so.) It’s true, too, that the Chinese government of Xi Jinping does not wish the United States well, and that its hacking and espionage operations have deep and malevolent roots. And smart people have raised valid concerns about TikTok’s security. (Any company that copies what you put on your clipboard is one that deserves very little trust.)
But that’s a reason to ban the app on the phones of American soldiers and diplomats, and it’s reason to warn others about the risks. It’s an argument, too, that US data privacy laws are woefully inadequate to protect people from data over-reach by any app, regardless of the country of origin. But the public evidence that TikTok is a fundamental and unique threat to US security is simply not there.
TikTok, however, is a threat to Facebook. It’s a legitimate competitor that has been able to thrive without being captured or killed. During the antitrust hearings on Wednesday, one of Congress’s central critiques was that Facebook uses all the secret information it gathers to sniff out its nascent opposition. “Will [Zuckerberg] go into destroy mode if I say no?” Instagram founder Kevin Systrom asked one of his board members, Matt Cohler, while discussing a potential Facebook acquisition of his company. “Probably,” came the reply, according to a memo released during the hearings.
Instagram and Whatsapp were gobbled by Facebook, and Snapchat was hobbled. But TikTok has survived Facebook’s destroy mode. The US company didn’t recognize its growth and misunderstood its genius. By the time Facebook first tried desperately to copy and clone it, it was too late. But now, with Trump’s aggressive stance, Facebook has been given a gift from above. Its new TikTok twin, Instagram’s Reels, launches soon. Without TikTok, the road to its success would be more open and clear.
There has been a certain amount of conspiratorial talk about Trump and Zuckerberg since the two had dinner last November: theorizing perhaps that they reached some sort of tacit agreement that Zuckerberg would allow Trump to use the platform as he saw fit, and Trump would help Zuckerberg in other ways? I’ve always doubted that there was anything explicit. But powerful diplomacy doesn’t work that way. It happens through subtle signals, winks, and nods. And I doubt that Zuckerberg’s kindness toward the White House didn’t weigh somewhat in Trump’s mind.
But this of course just lays bare the hypocrisy in Trump’s move. It’s a move against free speech, and to the extent that Facebook has been gentle on the president, it’s because of Zuckerberg’s defense of that fundamental right. And if one is an avid believer in free speech, how can one even threaten the death penalty for a social media platforrm? TikTok is full of garbage and sometimes hate. But it’s free and open, even in ways that other platforms aren’t. Conservative critics who rail about Twitter’s lack of respect for the First Amendment are often just working the refs. But many are sincere. I am eager to see how they react to today’s news. (The White House did not respond to my request for comment.)
What are Trump’s true motives? Surely there is an element of legitimate concern about national security and espionage. And surely there is some concern about politics: Being tough on China is an issue where he can score points against Joe Biden. It also can’t hurt that TikTok stars are accused of (or credited with) sandbagging his rally in Tulsa, and that some of the biggest names on the platform have made their names through hysterical mockery of him.
For the past several years, I’ve warned that the biggest threat to the internet is the technological cold war between the reasonably open, free internet of the West and the closed authoritarian internet of the East. Now, with the president’s repudiation of free speech and open markets, I worry that there isn’t much difference between the two sides after all.