TikTok and the Internet of the Future

Donald Trump is willing us towards a more balkanized internet

I’m Scott Nover. Welcome back to Pressing, a newsletter about press freedom. If you haven’t yet subscribed, you can do so here and receive this letter in your inbox every Tuesday morning.

This is the 50th issue of Pressing and it’s great to have you with me. Please send me feedback, thoughts, suggestions, and tips at sgnover@gmail.com.

A Different Internet

During the Covid-19 pandemic, TikTok has been nothing short of a cultural juggernaut. For its Gen-Z cohort, and older newcomers, TikTok’s trendy songs are the music of the summer, an extended season of isolation amid an unrelenting and unconscionably boring pandemic.

At Adweek, I’m tasked with covering all of the social media companies, but I’ve particularly enjoyed telling the raucous and evolving tale of TikTok, the newest and shiniest addition to our pantheon of apps.

I first downloaded the social video app this past fall, when I began working on a story about The Washington Post’s TikTok account for The Atlantic, and I was struck by the creativity, the culture, and the community it bred.

Simply put, TikTok is fun. While extended sessions on Facebook or Twitter often leave me feeling worse about myself, TikTok almost makes me feel better. It’s something almost foreign to modern, mature social media platforms, reminiscent of early YouTube or the best communities on Reddit.

Lately, I’ve been covering TikTok because it’s at a regulatory crossroads.

The Trump administration wants to ban the app entirely and, while it cannot really do that, it can essentially force ByteDance, its owner, to sell the app to a U.S. company if it wants to keep operating in America. ByteDance has roots in China and both Democrats and Republicans have expressed unproven concerns that the company may be sharing U.S. user data with the communist government in Beijing. While TikTok has major data privacy shortcomings (like all social media companies do) and has been fined by the FTC for children’s privacy violations, I fear the pertinent concerns over TikTok are based on speculation.

The administration has deemed TikTok a national security threat, all but forcing ByteDance to sell it off to Microsoft or another U.S. company in the next six weeks. And it’s all part of a trade war between the U.S. and China that’s seen economic penalties imposed on other Chinese-based tech companies like Huawei, ZTE, and Kunlun Tech, the former owner of the gay dating app Grindr. But it’s not just the U.S.: India banned TikTok outright along with many other Chinese apps, and Australia has ramped up regulatory pressure as well.

My concern with the Trump administration’s ban is simple: Playing whack-a-mole with unfavorable tech companies doesn’t improve long-term protections for Americans. If the concern is data security and privacy, a concern I share, the administration should push for federal privacy legislation to better regulate TikTok and U.S.-based tech companies who, like TikTok, often run afoul of existing rules and regulations.

The current approach leaves the United States ironically looking more like China, whose Great Firewall has excluded non-Chinese technology for decades. While we’re far from blocking access to individual websites—even if TikTok cannot sell and receives the full penalties of the law, it won’t be entirely inaccessible to U.S. users—we are moving more towards a balkanized internet of our own, where important platforms for free expression and communication play second fiddle to ill-defined claims that our national security is at risk.

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