confrontation in washington TikTok has spanned three years and two administrations. Now, with CEO Zhou Shouzi’s appearance before the U.S. Congress in March and signs of bipartisan consensus on the imminent ban, the battle may soon be over. The looming victory for China hawks in Washington marks a setback for a longstanding commitment to an open internet. Instead, U.S. lawmakers are adopting a techno-nationalist ideology that looks remarkably similar to that of China.
In the 2000s, the United States took a liberal-democratic approach to Internet governance, one based on fundamental beliefs in the values of freedom, openness, and decentralization. The desire for this open web is global. The social media platform, while primarily based in the San Francisco Bay Area, resembles an international public domain. In 2009, protesters organized on the platform, and Iran’s green movement has been dubbed one of the first “Twitter revolutions”. The following year, the social network promoted grassroots revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt as disaffected citizens rallied against government corruption during the Arab Spring.
The extent to which social media actually sparked or accelerated these political movements has been a matter of debate, but non-democratic governments—particularly the Chinese government—see the regime-stability threat inherent in the open web and have taken very practical steps. action. Fearing that U.S.-owned online platforms could facilitate “peaceful evolution,” in which the United States secretly and nonviolently overthrows the Communist Party, the Chinese government has instituted increasingly stringent censorship. When the Arab revolutions did find echoes in China’s Jasmine Revolution in February 2011, citizens called for anti-government protests on social media, and the government quickly ordered tighter internet controls.
Not only is Beijing refusing to open up the internet, but it has developed its own vision of cyber sovereignty. First in a 2010 State Council white paper, and later in cybersecurity legislation and President Xi Jinping’s official speeches, officials have promoted the idea that there is much of the Internet separated by digital borders and patrolled by government actors.
Washington now appears to be pursuing its own version of cyber sovereignty, straight out of Beijing’s (and arguably Moscow’s) playbook. China hawks are eager to characterize TikTok as a national security threat, though such allegations are often hypothetical and rarely proven, making them sound a lot like paranoid ideologues in Beijing. Congress could ban the app through a White House-approved restriction bill introduced by Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, with bipartisan support. But its scope extends far beyond TikTok. If passed, the bill would authorize the Commerce Department to ban any technology from a “foreign adversary” that threatens national security. In addition to putting the principles of the First Amendment at risk, the bill could also make it a crime to use digital security tools, such as virtual private networks, to bypass restrictions.
This new perspective may have more to do with money than ideology. Policymakers’ support for the vision of an open network stems in part from their belief that private U.S. innovators and companies are strong enough to maintain market dominance. TikTok, which is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, has shattered that long-held assumption. The threat of foreign competition makes it increasingly attractive to shed old protectionist ideologies in the name of national security.
The open web has never been perfect. The “Twitter revolution” in the Middle East and beyond has largely failed. In the West, undemocratic corners of the internet have also flourished, fueling jihadi radicalization, election manipulation and vaccine disinformation. Still, none of this is evidence that the vision for the open web is basically bankrupt. Washington pessimists who favor a techno-nationalist approach to internet governance have made this country sacrifice the creativity and power of a web dedicated to free speech and open competition between platforms. Would the US have become a leader in social media over the past few decades if the growth of US start-ups was constrained by a vague, shifting notion of “national security”? Changing our values to fit the competitive landscape is backward. Democracies should strive to win on their own terms.