Elliott School Panel Explores the Saga of TikTok and WeChat

Experts said the ongoing battle to ban the Chinese social media platforms have far-reaching implications for trade and national security and threatens the future of the open internet.

October 12, 2020


By Tatyana Hopkins

The ongoing controversy of the Trump administration’s attempts to ban the popular Chinese social media platforms TikTok and WeChat have all the parts of a great book, movie or Netflix series, said Hillary Brill, an expert on technology and policy, during a virtual panel at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.

“We’ve got a stock character of the president, a threat from a Communist country, then we have innocent teenagers using an app constantly, and adults as well, and [you have to wonder] is this something nefarious; is there some kind of underpinning we don’t know about,” said Ms. Brill, interim executive director of the Georgetown Law Institute of Technology Law and Policy (ITLP).  “But this isn’t fiction. This is real life.”

In August, the Trump administration published an executive order targeting TikTok and WeChat, purporting to ban the two apps from being downloaded and processing transactions the United States due to national security concerns. Soon after, President Donald Trump threatened to ban TikTok entirely if it did not sell its U.S. operations to an American company by the middle of November.

Ms. Brill, who moderated a panel Friday morning hosted by ITLP and the Elliott School, said the proposed banning of the two social media platforms has raised serious questions about a variety of issues such as economics, trade, privacy and data, national security and even the future of the open internet.

The panel included Ana Swanson, a New York Times trade and international economics reporter; Anupam Chander, Georgetown Law professor; and Henry Gao, an associate professor of law at Singapore Management University.

They discussed the layers and nuances of the TikTok and WeChat bans, including the validity of the president’s claims that TikTok and WeChat threaten U.S. national security.

“The U.S. has borrowed China’s playbook…[and] eroded the U.S.’s moral leadership in ensuring an open Internet,” Mr. Chander said. “The fact that the Chinese press is concerned that [the U.S. is seeking to] compel technology transfer from China to the United States should make us all feel embarrassed because that’s the argument that we make against China, repeatedly.”

The Trump administration alleged that TikTok is a risk to national security because the app is owned by a Chinese parent company, ByteDance, and said that the company would be required to give the Chinese Communist regime access to American’s personal and proprietary information. The administration said this would potentially allow the Chinese government to track the location of federal employees and contractors and other information that could be used for blackmail and corporate espionage. However, TikTok has insisted that American users’ information is stored outside of China and will reject any effort on the Chinese government’s to compel access to that data.

“The rationale of these apps can easily be applied to American apps,” Ms. Chander said. “There are inherent privacy concerns with any app.”

Noting federal courts issuing injunctions against the enforcement of the ban, the panel said there is very little evidence that the apps have been compromised by the Chinese government and warned that the Trump administration’s actions could lead to a global erosion of the internet.

“I think what we’re seeing, unfortunately, is the rise of the so called ‘separate-net,’ where the whole internet, the whole World Wide Web goes from being one internet to being fragmented,” Mr. Gao said.

He said China has threatened to open a dispute against the United States with the World Trade Organization. It has also implemented several trade barriers including banning the exportation of the TikTok algorithm and the Unreliable Entity List, which would allow the Chinese government to take punitive actions against foreign firms that boycott supplies to Chinese companies even if in compliance with the potential TikTok ban.

Mr. Gao said the bickering could set a precedent that could tear the internet apart.

“You would see the rise of the American version of the internet, the Chinese version of the internet and also the possibly the European version of the internet, and countries will have to choose,” he said.  

Ms. Swanson said while there are legitimate concerns about data collection and censorship, just targeting one app will not address those issues and taking such a piece-meal approach could come at a high cost for U.S. business interests.

Instead, she said, the U.S. leaders should be having a broader conversation about data privacy to take a more comprehensive approach that is less likely to rebound negatively.

“The conversation about protecting American private data has barely happened or taken place or began in the public sphere,” Ms. Swanson said. “The U.S. is home to some of the world’s largest internet firms, and unlike Europe, we’ve been kind of reluctant to regulate them too heavily or really begin to talk about that more comprehensive approach.”