Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 29 April 2024


The United States Had Every Right To Force a TikTok Sale

Credit... Illustration by Shoshana Schultz/The New York Times

Mr. Wu is a law professor at Columbia, a contributing Opinion writer and the author of “The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age.”

China’s violations of human rights and the basic norms of internet freedom are blatant and obvious. This month, with little fanfare, the country ordered Apple to block downloads of WhatsApp, Threads and Signal within its borders. It already prevents citizens from connecting to dozens of other providers of information, including this newspaper and Wikipedia, and for years, it has aggressively surveilled journalists and dissidents.

That abysmal track record gives the United States every right to demand that TikTok find a different owner — one not subject to the control of the Chinese state.

Last week, President Biden signed a law that did just that. TikTok’s current owner, ByteDance, has long emphasized that global institutional investors — such as the Carlyle Group, General Atlantic and Susquehanna International Group — have a 60 percent stake in the company, but it is still, at its core, a Chinese company, with headquarters in Beijing and subject in multiple ways to the direction of Chinese officials. This new law, which gives TikTok roughly 270 days to find a new owner, is designed to change that. But more fundamentally, it sends a message to the world: You cannot disregard basic internet norms and expect to be treated just like any other country.

Infrastructure is destiny, and on some level, the continuing struggle to control the internet is a struggle for the future of civilization. We are already very far from the vision of the internet, laid out in the 1970s and 1990s, of a network that would bring the nations and peoples of the world together in harmony. That may have been too idealistic, even then — but today, we can still draw a line at mass surveillance and censorship, and make it clear that nations who break norms are not entitled to full access to American markets.

Some have argued that TikTok should be left alone to preserve a free and open internet. They argue that to treat China differently would fragment the network. That gets things backward. China, Russia, Iran and other nations have long since broken from any “one internet” vision with their blocking, shutdowns and censorship. This month, American policymakers demonstrated that doing so has consequences.

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That China is in violation of established norms is not in question. In 2022, more than 60 nations signed a “Declaration for the Future of the Internet” enumerating basic online principles that all nations should respect (China, Russia and other nations declined to sign): no shutdowns around elections, no surveillance of political opponents, no bans on lawful content. While no country is perfect, only nations like Russia, Iran and Cuba can rival China in their flagrant violations of these principles. Freedom House, which measures internet freedoms, rates Iceland at 94 out of 100, Russia at 21 and China at 9. That alone is grounds to disqualify it from controlling what is now one the world’s most important social media networks.

If the United States refuses to enforce the principles of internet freedom and openness, it makes a mockery of them. I will be the first to admit that even the United States has at times failed to respect these principles, particularly when it comes to state surveillance. But the answer is not to throw up our hands and declare that there is nothing to be done.

ByteDance, for its part, maintains that it is not actually subject to control by the Chinese government. The weight of the evidence suggests otherwise: The Chinese state owns a “golden share” in the company, the firm is based in China, and studies suggest that the government shapes TikTok content in accordance with party preferences. ByteDance has said it has no plans to sell TikTok; but that might merely be a means of driving up the price. What the company now has is a golden opportunity to prove its independence for once and for all: by selling TikTok and taking the money.

It is true that only a few American companies — such as Oracle, Microsoft and Meta — have the money to buy TikTok, and I’ll admit that should Meta or Google acquire it, they would have a dangerous amount of control over one their greatest competitors. But that need not be the future of the company. TikTok’s current investors could partner with individuals, such as the Canadian investor and businessman Kevin O’Leary, to turn it “into an American company,” as Mr. Leary has said he wants to do. TikTok could even be run as a nonprofit, and perhaps begin a move toward a less toxic business model.

These are radical steps, to be sure. But they are not without precedent. The new TikTok law is similar to the longstanding law that originally barred foreign citizens and corporations from owning U.S. radio and television stations. That law, enacted in the 1930s, might seem quaint today, but during the propaganda wars of the 20th century, control over radio stations was nothing to joke about. No one doubts that control over radio broadcasting was essential during the Second World War; there is no reason to pretend that social media has any less political salience in our times.

TikTok is already banned in a handful of other countries, including India, and on government phones in Australia, Canada and most of Europe. But looking forward, it is important that other democratic nations — particularly the Europeans — take seriously the dangers of Chinese control over their vital communications platforms. While justifiably concerned about the privacy practices of American tech platforms, they can’t ignore the question of who owns TikTok. The democracies of the world have played the sucker for far too long.

More on the TikTok bill

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