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Trump's TikTok ban could mean Americans have less freedom on the internet, just like in China, experts warn

Trump's TikTok ban could mean Americans have less freedom on the internet, just like in China, experts warn
Trump's TikTok ban could mean Americans have less freedom on the internet, just like in China, experts warn

Trump's plan to ban TikTok from US app stores could make the US internet more closely resemble China's heavily-censored networks, experts say.

  • Trump's plan to ban TikTok from US app stores by Sunday is an unprecedented move — and it could make the US internet more closely resemble China's heavily-censored internet, experts say.
  • The ban could force users to try to download TikTok and WeChat through secretive backchannels, or attempt to keep using them until the inability to update the apps makes them unusable, experts told Business Insider.
  • Civil rights groups have criticized the ban as a potential violation of American users' First Amendment rights, and the ban is likely to face a legal challenge on those grounds.
  • But other experts said that Trump's ban doesn't rise to the level of China's censorship because it doesn't ban TikTok at the network level, and people in the US could still access TikTok through VPNs or other channels.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

When the Trump administration announced plans to ban TikTok and WeChat from US app stores this week, some technology and government experts were reminded of the tactics of a different nation that heavily regulates its internet: China.

The unprecedented ban mirrors the methods China employs, using its "great firewall" to ban apps and websites that are seen as threats to the government and its interests. While US tech companies have traditionally advocated for an open, unregulated internet across the globe, increasing geopolitical tensions — especially between the US and China — are threatening that vision.

"The Trump administration is effectively taking a page out of the CCP playbook by replicating cyber sovereignty in a US context," said Rebecca Lissner, a scholar at Georgetown University's Center for Security Studies and co-author of a An Open World, a new book on shifting global powers.

The Trump administration's ban on TikTok and WeChat hinges on the fact that, because they are based in China, the apps are subject to laws that require they turn over any requested data to the Chinese government. But the ban also aligns with an ongoing trade war between the two countries that has amplified under Trump and Chinese president Xi Jinping.

Lissner argues that Trump's ban could accelerate a fragmented "splinternet" that hampers the ability of US tech companies and users to connect with other countries.

"Rather than establishing a model for the type of global internet that the United States would hope to see, we're actually replicating the exact types of behaviors that on a global scale we should be trying to combat," Lissner told Buisness Insider.

The ban could force TikTok users to access the app through secretive backchannels — and is likely to face a First Amendment challenge

Leeza Garber, a lecturer at the Wharton School of Business teaching internet law, told Business Insider that while the ban is unprecedented, it doesn't rise to the level of Chinese state censorship because TikTok would merely be banned from US app stores, not blacklisted from the internet entirely.

However, Garber anticipates that people in the US could be forced to find backchannels to keep accessing TikTok, like using VPNs that make it look like they're viewing the app from a different country. Otherwise, users who already have the app downloaded will be able to keep using it but not receive updates.

"What a ban is really going to look like is users that already have it can continue to use it, but as it needs patches you're not going to get those. So at some point it'll stop working and if that happens, it'll likely fizzle out and a new competitor will come in," Garber said.

Garber said it's highly unlikely that the US will attempt to ban TikTok from all American networks in the way China's great firewall operates — but that the possibility shouldn't be ruled out entirely.

"2020 has proven to be such a crazy year that you never know," she said.

Regardless of whether the ban goes further than Trump's current plan — which would freeze app store downloads and ban TikTok data from being held on US servers — it's likely to face a First Amendment challenge, Garber said. The ACLU said in a statement to The Information on Friday that Trump's order "violates the First Amendment rights of the people of the United States."

Experts say the dispute could lead to a domino effect, further splintering the internet across the globe

Trump's ban comes as governments across the globe are increasingly regulating how their citizens' data is stored and what tech companies do with that data. Ireland recently ordered Facebook to stop sending Irish users' data to the US, citing concerns about surveillance by the US government.

As that trend continues, companies like TikTok could become increasingly caught in the crosshairs when nation-states no longer trust one another with data, according to St. Johns University professor of finance Yun Zhu, who specializes in tech and international trade.

"This is not only happening between the US and China," Zhu told Business Insider. "Facebook, Apple, and Google are facing challenges from foreign countries as well. "How do they prevent a country of accusing them of not meeting national security standards?"

TikTok said it plans to fight the Trump ban in court, and has called on other US social media companies to join its litigation.

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