An app known mostly for teenagers posting videos of dance routines and comedy skits might seem an unusual subject of national security concerns. In the unfolding history of the online world, however, the forced sale to an American company of the US arm of TikTok, the first Chinese social media venture to become a global phenomenon, is a milestone. Coming after several western countries rejected Huawei’s 5G technology, it highlights that the bifurcation of the internet — indeed, its splintering into multiple regional internets — is not just inevitable, but already a reality.
The sale reflects the special attention of the United States and other Western democracies to Beijing’s dictatorship, which may have access to data held by Chinese companies. After all, China’s national security law requires all companies to comply with the requirements of their security agencies. ByteDance, the owner of TikTok, insists that it will never hand over user information, while US data is stored in the US. Such assurances have not alleviated the Trump administration’s concerns. The US Foreign Investment Commission ordered ByteDance to sell its US subsidiary. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pointed out that Chinese security agencies may use their facial recognition expertise to build complex databases containing users’ personal characteristics, addresses, phone numbers, friends and contacts. TikTok, which TechCrunch calls "the Instagram of the mobile video era", has also developed into a platform for young political and social activists.
China’s foreign ministry said the US decision “exposes the US’s typical double standards”. Regrettable as America’s action will be to those who have nurtured the idea of cyber space as a border-free zone, however, it is only a mirror of what has long been the case in China. Beijing either barred or imposed conditions rejected as unacceptable by Facebook, Google, Twitter and others long ago, and has stringent data localisation laws. The Trump administration’s comments echo China’s own notion of digital sovereignty.
This is, moreover, not just a purely US-China phenomenon. India recently banned 59 of China’s biggest mobile phone apps, including TikTok and WeChat, on the grounds that they pose a threat to the country’s security.
While it may be inevitable, the carve-up of the internet — and hence the global tech industry — into a series of walled gardens is still regrettable. It is likely to slow innovation by leading to unnecessary duplication and competing standards. Ideally, even if countries adopt their own rules on privacy, data storage, and who can operate within their online borders, it would be preferable for these to develop in a global framework — a kind of World Trade Organization of cyber space. With the WTO already having a hard time, however, such a notion is unlikely ever to get off the ground without a change of leadership in some of the world’s largest economies.