Digital wars

Published August 10, 2020
The writer is a freelance journalist.
The writer is a freelance journalist.

SET aside nukes, the tech wars have begun. US President Donald Trump last week ordered the ban of TikTok and WeChat, social media apps owned by the Chinese companies ByteDance and Tencent, respectively, unless they were sold to an American company within 45 days.

The unprecedented order is driven by national security considerations. The US government argues that TikTok gathers user information which could be exploited by the Chinese state to conduct political or corporate espionage, blackmail officials and spread propaganda. US officials have also expressed concerns about the extent to which the platform could interfere with elections through content production, moderation and suppression.

The move could be game-changing in the extent to which it reconfigures economic ties between the US and China, particularly how American and Chinese companies invest and grow abroad. It also clarifies that this century’s cold wars will unfold in the digital realm, with global geopolitical implications. Gone are the days of unfettered neoliberal expansionism, we’re back to a world in which na­­t­ionalist instincts will trump commercialism.

TikTok, a video-sharing app, had so far been in the news for its rapid growth and user base. The app is dominated by young people using short videos as a way to have fun, explore their identities, and become politically engaged. In countries like the US, which has a 100 million TikTok users and an upcoming election, the platform has become a favourite of political campaigners, and a barometer of youth political mobilisation.

Tech platforms face the challenge of being neutral and transparent.

But over recent months the platform itself — rather than the content it hosts — has become politicised. India last month banned TikTok along with 58 other Chinese apps, citing national security concerns. Reviews in other countries allied with Washington or New Delhi may follow.

Trump’s orders come despite TikTok’s efforts to navigate Sino-US political tensions. The company itself doesn’t operate in China, has hired American executives, and has even taken a stance against the Chinese government — while US tech companies pondered what to do after China introduced a national security law in Hong Kong, TikTok ceased operations in the city. But these assurances have not been sufficient.

All social media and digital platforms gather user information. Trump’s orders have reframed the discussion from being about how much information is gathered (and how transparently) to who is doing the gathering. Are they American or Chinese? If TikTok’s sale succeeds despite legal challenges, Trump will have succeeded in building a wall; a digital wall.

No matter the outcome of this dispute, Chinese tech companies will increasingly avoid the US and its Western allies and seek to grow in markets where China has made political inroads, including Southeast and Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and, of course, Pakistan.

As global tech wars gain momentum, countries that aren’t backing major tech platforms of their own are passing laws to ensure they can access and control the valuable user information that tech companies gather. For places like Pakistan, that means the question is not who is gathering user data, but who is willing to give it up. This explains the recent passage of the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, which require social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to block content deemed offensive by the government and share data with our authorities.

How tech companies choose to localise will increasingly be driven by broader political considerat­ions. It is not surprising that TikTok, which has been downloaded 39m times in Pakistan, counts the country among the top five markets where it has removed objectionable content. The comp­any has responded to the PTA’s warnings about the platform hosting too much “immo­ral, obscene, and vulgar” content by launching its community guidelines in Urdu, and promising more effective moderation. It has thus saved itself from the fate of Bigo Live, that was blocked by the regulator.

As digital battles intensify, tech platforms face the impossible challenge of being neutral and transparent, and balancing the need to protect individuals’ data privacy and security with national security considerations. The only way for people, politicians, policymakers and platforms to navigate this quagmire is to fight for more robust data protection and privacy laws, and the wider deployment of encryption and other cybersecurity measures.

Unfortunately, political and security considerations will probably win out over these regulatory measures, affecting how tech companies operate. The fantasy long-peddled by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg that tech companies are immune to the pressures historically faced by media outlets is definitively dispelled.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, August 10th, 2020

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