As China makes inroads, what happens when the internet gets less American?

Topics Internet | TikTok | ByteDance

America is going to have to reckon with an internet that is becoming less American.

Some US lawmakers on both sides of the partisan divide have said they are worried about TikTok, the app that lets users record and share short skits or dance routines to music. The app quickly became popular in the US and some other countries, and that has generated anxiety about TikTok’s ownership by the Chinese internet company ByteDance Inc.

The US is conducting a national security review of TikTok, and a foreign investment committee is considering whether ByteDance should be forced to unwind an acquisition that brought the TikTok app to the US The US Navy this week alerted personnel not to use TikTok on government-issued smartphones because of a cybersecurity threat that the Navy didn’t detail.

TikTok has been on a mission to alleviate worries about its Chinese ownership by ramping up its outreach to US politicians. It has also taken steps and considered structural changes to create separation between the app and China. Some of these efforts seem like pointless window dressing.

I don’t know whether TikTok is a genuine threat. I don’t know whether it is harvesting Americans’ data for the mother country. There have been news reports that TikTok scrubs material on its app outside of China that is considered unpalatable by the Chinese government and therefore helps spread a sanitized view about China outside the country’s borders. TikTok now says that it doesn’t house data on US users in China and that the Chinese government doesn’t censor its global video app.

The discussion about TikTok in US political circles has become caught up in the broader tug of war between the US and China, but the fundamental issue is real. This isn’t the first non-American internet service to get big in the US But this the first time, truly, that Americans have had to consider what it means to have a popular consumer internet service that isn’t owned by an American company. I suspect it won’t be the last time.

This is not new ground for most other countries. Facebook and its Instagram and WhatsApp apps; Google and its YouTube service; Netflix; Twitter; and other digital services from US companies have become prevalent in many parts of the world. Foreign governments have at times chafed at the internet dominance by American companies for both justifiable and bogus reasons and have sought to make those companies comply with local laws and norms.

It’s mostly understandable for governments outside the US to have those worries about American internet services. It’s likewise mostly understandable for the US to consider the implications when an Internet service from a company in China or Russia gains traction in America. What I wonder is whether what’s happening now is a declaration that an internet company cannot operate in the US if it comes from a country with which the US has fundamental and unresolvable disagreements over government policies or values.

There has been anxiety in technology circles for years that the world is being divided into two or more versions of the internet. There is the US version, mostly freewheeling and free, that had become something of a global default. There’s the Chinese version, a parallel world in which activity and speech are tightly controlled by the government and from which foreign internet companies are largely barred. Some people also talk about a European internet and maybe an Indian internet, again with standards for behavior and company conduct that aligns with government priorities.

On the one hand, I am an American and I’d rather live in an American-style internet than one mirroring Vietnam, where what happens online is commandeered by an authoritarian government. On the other hand, tax regimes differ from country to country, in reflection of different government’s policy priorities. Should internet policy be so fundamentally different than tax policy? (There are legitimate technical reasons why it’s harder to have country-by-country internet services.)

Facebook, Google, Apple and Netflix have had to grapple with the balance between sticking to their American-honed principles while also complying with different standards and laws in all the countries where they operate. That may mean the companies have to push back when they believe their principles are compromised too much, and it may mean the companies should not do business in some places where the rules are fundamentally at odds with what their leaders and home country citizens believe.

There are not necessarily easy answers. US internet companies do fail to strike the right balance outside of America’s borders, and do and should face scrutiny from the media, US lawmakers and other outsiders when that happens.

ByteDance should face the same scrutiny when it sets foot outside China’s borders. ByteDance and TikTok leadership will have to figure out how to be a Chinese company that doesn’t always operate by Chinese internet norms. That isn’t something China’s internet companies have been forced to grapple with until recently. That country’s popular internet companies including Tencent, Weibo, Douban and Baidu have mostly been used in China or by the Chinese diaspora. That is starting to change with TikTok and other apps such as the TikTok-like app called Kuaishou or Kwai.

Chinese internet companies, and American citizens and politicians, face a similar challenge. They have to care how the rest of the world thinks and behaves after being insulated from those realities for a long time.

I don’t know the right way to deal with this in the US, but it’s long overdue for Americans and US political representatives to take seriously — truly seriously; not in hyperbolic panic — how we should feel about digital hangouts incubated in a country that may not share what we consider American values.

(1) I'm going to leave a discussion of the longtime US government distrust of Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications equipment provider, for another day.

(2) In contrast to internet companies, Chinese hardware companies such as Huawei, Xiaomi, Lenovo and the drone maker DJI Innovations have had success outside of China. Arguably, pure internet companies face trickier standards of norms and laws outside their home countries. And for the purposes of this column, I'm not considering services provided by Chinese companies such as Didi and Alibaba, which use the internet and smartphones to provide real-world services such as on-demand car rides and e-commerce orders.

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