Geopolitical HypocrisiesTikTok, Insecurity & Sino-US Relations
Chris Ogden shows how the logical extension of banning the Chinese platform for its data collection would be to clamp down on other forms of social media, including Facebook and Google
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Recent criticism of the short-form video hosting service TikTok has intensified with a range of Western governments banning its use among their employees. There is also mounting speculation that the social media app could be completely banned across the entire US population, which makes up 150 million of TikTok’s 1.05 billion active monthly users worldwide. Central to these concerns is that TikTok, via its parent company ByteDance, is an extension of the Chinese government, giving Beijing access to all of its users’ data.
The highly addictive and emotionally manipulative power of TikTok’s algorithms plays into these fears, augmenting insecurities that users will be targetted with pro-China and anti-Western misinformation.
Such concerns about Chinese technological prowess extend across the West and are symptomatic of greater fears concerning who controls the world order. That China now has the world’s largest economy in terms of GDP (PPP), along with the world’s second highest military spending (which will surpass that of the US by 2028 if it continues to expand at its current rate), and has been creating its own institutions such as the AIIB and SCO, all point to Beijing being a clear system competitor.
This threat is infecting anything China-related, be it business, social or political, and explains why concerns over TikTok and their active conflation with wider geopolitical fears are so loudly articulated.
The proposed ban of TikTok has come in the wake of the US’s ban on selling and importing communications and video equipment from Chinese manufacturers like Huawei. In November 2022, Washington also banned the export of semiconductors to China from either the US or any company that uses US semiconductor technology. The ban was seen by observers as a purposeful tactic of “strangling with an intent to kill”, especially concerning China’s ever-accelerating expansion of its AI capacities.
Central to these measures is not only geopolitical competition but also that US and Western monopolies concerning the control, production and strategic manipulation of such technology are under threat. Such dominance has been an established feature of the current world order.
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Playing Them at Their Own Game
Since 9/11, the US’s National Security Agency (NSA) has vastly increased its surveillance and data collection powers. Its programmes also do exactly what TikTok is accused of doing – collecting the data of domestic and foreign targets and passing it on to their associated “home” governments.
One of these, “EvilOlive”, collects ‘all web surfing data, including all internet addresses a consumer visits’. Another, “PRISM”, collects communications directly from the servers of US service providers including Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Apple, and covers ‘the vast majority of online email, search, video and communications networks’. It also collects data relating to email, video and voice chats including voice-over IP (as is used by Skype, FaceTime and Zoom), file transfers and social media details, which is then made searchable by a programme called “XKeyscore”.
This latter programme is integrated with the intelligence agencies of other countries – notably the UK, Germany, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, among others – who contribute data and are given access to the programme which parses data from all these sources together. This includes the UK’s “Tempora” programme, whose scope was so vast that the number of people targeted was argued in 2013 to “be an infinite list which we couldn’t manage”’.
Combined, these programmes form a massive system of data collection, storage, processing, and retrieval which the NSA and allied agencies may use to monitor any person in the world, including their own citizens. From this basis, current Western allegations towards Chinese tech companies have a rather hypocritical edge.
Pre-dating these activities, in 1970 the CIA and its German counterpart the BND bought the firm Crypto AG and added encryption weaknesses to its products allowing them to eavesdrop on adversaries and allies alike. In the words of a CIA report, ‘“it was the intelligence coup of the century. Foreign governments were paying good money … for the privilege of having their most secret communications read”’ by the US and its allies. Initially codenamed “Thesaurus” and then “Rubicon” in the 1980s, Crypto AG encryption devices were sold to more than 100 other countries (but not to China or Russia which were suspicious of the company’s origins) before the US sold its share of the company in 2018. Again, the echoes concerning TikTok’s apparent activities are evident and stem directly from the US and the West’s own extensive past experience of carrying out such activities.
Of significant note, too, is that a number of US companies sell surveillance technology to at least 32 countries across the world, including authoritarian governments in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Egypt, Turkey, the Philippines, Myanmar, Russia and even China. These sales include technology that captures video, audio and biometrics; and carries out electronic monitoring, license plate recognition, thermal sensing and content filtering. Notably, IBM has helped to build parts of China’s surveillance architecture in Xinjiang, Zoom has blocked online meetings among activists in China at the behest of Beijing and from 2006-10 Google ran a censored search engine in China.
This technology is also used in the US, especially by police departments and federal agencies who are constructing large databases to trace the population’s online activities and track the movement of citizens.
The logical extension of any banning of TikTok would be to consider the banning of other forms of social media, including Facebook and Google.
Such companies have been shown to ‘pose a serious risk to a range of other rights, from freedom of expression and opinion to freedom of thought and the right to non-discrimination’. In 2019, Facebook exempted political advertisements from making false claims, which along with Twitter and Google allowed the propagation of extremism and misinformation – including the glorification of violence during the 2020 election and the 2021 attack on the US Capitol.
Facebook has also subverted also freedoms of expression and speech in Vietnam and Thailand and its practices have helped enable violence and state-sponsored censorship in Myanmar.
But to ban these companies would mean the West having to accept their hypocrisy, which would undermine their demonization of China. It would also shut down a mechanism that – in league with the surveillance powers of The Five Eyes – allows it to access the data of billions of social media users across the world.
In January 2023, this included 3 billion users on Facebook, 2.5 billion on YouTube, 2 billion on WhatsApp and 2 billion on Instagram. In turn, Big Tech firms are now among the biggest corporate donors in the US, outstripping Big Pharma, Big Tobacco and the arms industry. They spent $124 million in lobbying and campaign contributions in the 2020 Presidential election, giving them the ability to critically influence policy debates, especially regarding any social media ban. Censorship arguments and fears over alienating younger voters bolster such opposition.
Ultimately, Western policy could precipitate the splintering of the internet. Beijing has long pushed for the concept of “cyber sovereignty” that seeks to recognize the right of every country to control the internet within their borders. In marked contrast to the US’s model of continuing an open, worldwide internet, Xi Jinping has stated that ‘“we should respect the right of individual countries to independently choose their own path of cyber development and model of cyber regulation”’. As part of this vision, China is building a separate internet structure that uses blockchain technology to track and store data, resulting in ‘a completely different digital architecture, complete with its own ideological governance and values’. Such an eventuality will only increase division between the West and China, intensify mutual suspicions and fear, and heighten the risk of eventual conflict.
This article was originally published by Makroskop