TikTok ban needed to punish China over internet censorship: Tim Wu

  • TikTok is facing an onslaught of executive orders from the Trump administration, an attempt to get the viral app banned in the United States.
  • Tim Wu, an open-internet advocate who coined the term “net neutrality,” argued  in a New York Times op-ed Wednesday that TikTok should be banned as a “tit for tat” response to China’s nationwide internet censorship of US tech companies.
  • Wu wrote that the “privilege” of the US open internet should be available “only to companies from countries that respect that openness themselves.”
  • It’s still unclear whether Trump has the authority to ban TikTok, or how such a ban would work in practice. TikTok is reportedly planning to sue the Trump administration over its proposed ban.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

A leading advocate of a free and open internet has come out in support of banning the popular video app TikTok in the United States.

In a New York Times op-ed published Wednesday, Tim Wu argues that banning TikTok, a China-based company, could serve as a “tit for tat” response to the Chinese government’s strict stance internet censorship.

Wu — one of the staunchest advocates of a free and open internet, also well known for coining the term “net neutrality” — argues it’s time for the United States to abandon the perspective that providing an open internet to all would help shepherd in democracy and free internet access in countries around the world. While acknowledging that Donald Trump is “the wrong figure to be fighting this fight,” Wu says that a ban on TikTok would finally punish China over its policies stifling citizens’ access to American websites and social networks.

Wu’s support of a TikTok ban is a unique one that critiques how the United States has long approached foreign affairs, portraying itself as the powerful democracy other countries should aspire to model after. According to Wu banning an app like TikTok that originates from a Chinese company would cut off  “the privilege of full internet access” China has been afforded while using the internet in its own country as “a tool of state power.”

“For many years, laboring under the vain expectation that China, succumbing to inexorable world-historical forces, would become more like us, Western democracies have allowed China to exploit this situation,” Wu wrote in the Times. “There is also such a thing as being a sucker. If China refuses to follow the rules of the open internet, why continue to give it access to internet markets around the world?”

Meanwhile, TikTok has become a social powerhouse with more than 100 million monthly active users in the US. Its success has given the app a multi-billion valuation, and its Beijing-based parent company, ByteDance, the status of the most valuable private startup in the world. 

In recent months, the Trump administration has stepped up its attempts to ban TikTok in the US and cut into the company’s overwhelming success. Trump has based his executive orders and actions on the premise of national security, arguing that TikTok serves as a pawn for the Chinese government to access Americans’ personal data.

However, experts have found little evidence to support Trump’s claims TikTok is used to spy on US citizens. The lack of support for this argument could undermine Trump’s executive orders, as TikTok reportedly plans to sue the US government arguing the national-security concerns are “based on pure speculation and conjecture.” 

Additionally, it’s also unclear whether Trump has the power to ban an app in the US, and how such a ban would work in practice. A ban on a social network like TikTok also raises questions about whether it restricts free speech in violation of the First Amendment.

But while Americans are afforded such rights, Chinese citizens don’t have the same power. The Chinese government imposes strict restrictions on its citizens’ internet access — dubbed the “great firewall” — that blocks people in China from accessing many of the biggest US websites and social networks. Comparisons have already been made between Trump’s attempted TikTok ban and China’s internet restrictions — which could lead to concerns of a “splinternet” turning into a reality.

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