Source: NY Times, Aug 2020
In China, the foreign equivalents of TikTok and WeChat — video and messaging apps such as YouTube and WhatsApp — have been banned for years. The country’s extensive blocking, censorship and surveillance violate just about every principle of internet openness and decency. China keeps a closed and censorial internet economy at home while its products enjoy full access to open markets abroad.
The asymmetry is unfair and ought no longer be tolerated. The privilege of full internet access — the open internet — should be extended only to companies from countries that respect that openness themselves.
Behind the TikTok controversy is an important struggle between two dueling visions of the internet.
The first is an older vision: the idea that the internet should, in a neutral fashion, connect everyone, and that blocking and censorship of sites by nation-states should be rare and justified by more than the will of the ruler.
The second and newer vision, of which China has been the leading exponent, is “net nationalism,” which views the country’s internet primarily as a tool of state power. Economic growth, surveillance and thought control, from this perspective, are the internet’s most important functions.
China, in furtherance of this vision, bans not only most foreign competitors to its tech businesses but also foreign sources of news, religious instruction and other information, while using the internet to promote state propaganda and engage in foreign electoral interference.
Few foreign companies are allowed to reach Chinese citizens with ideas or services, but the world is fully open to China’s online companies.
From China’s perspective, the asymmetry has been a bonanza that has served economic as well as political goals. While China does have great engineers, European nations overrun by American tech companies must be jealous of the thriving tech industry that China has built in the absence of serious foreign competition (aided by the theft of trade secrets).
We need to wake up to the game we are playing when it comes to the future of the global internet. The idealists of the 1990s and early ’00s believed that building a universal network, a kind of digital cosmopolitanism, would lead to world peace and harmony. No one buys that fantasy any longer. But if we want decency and openness to survive on the internet — surely a more attainable goal — the nations that hold such values need to begin fighting to protect them.