U.S. President Donald Trump’s feud with the popular TikTok video-sharing social-networking app likely has less to do with overall concerns for national security and more to do with the rise of techno-nationalism, according to one Canadian cybersecurity expert.
“It’s about Trump’s particular orientation towards China and Trump’s attempt to use the sort of nationalist front to create a conflict in order to seem strong,” said David Murakami Wood, a researcher at the Surveillance Studies Centre and an associate professor of sociology at Queen’s University, in an interview with Spark host Nora Young.
“Basically he’s trying to seem strong.”
In late July, Trump threatened to ban TikTok on national security grounds, later saying that the app wouldn’t be allowed to operate in the U.S., unless Chinese parent company ByteDance sells the app to an American buyer.
TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, has responded to the looming ban by suing the U.S government.
Additionally, global computing giant Microsoft, multinational retail chain Walmart and software company Oracle are currently among the U.S. companies currently trying to acquire ByteDance’s TikTok operations in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
But for Murakami Wood, the question of national security is a complicated one, especially as claims about the level of private user data gathered by TikTok “[are] really no different than any other major social media company.”
Murakami Wood added that concerns about ByteDance’s and other Chinese companies’ connections to the country’s ruling Communist Party are comparable to the fact that “most American social media companies are required to turn over data to the state [and]… in fact have a backdoor… for the National Security Agency and others.”
“Again, the question is whether you think it’s so much worse in China and whether that warrants this kind of action.”
And while Trump’s claimed concern about national security is one potential reason for the U.S. president’s action on ByteDance and TikTok, Murakami Wood said the larger explanation has to do with competition between the U.S. and China.
“We’re seeing a kind of portrayal of the future in which China is seen as the main competition of the U.S. in a number of technological fields, whether it be AI…, whether it be autonomous vehicles and drones or whether it be surveillance technologies of smart cities,” Murakami Wood said, adding that the competition between the two nations has lead to accusations of industrial espionage.
“This is now being portrayed and put together to form a picture of this kind of new emerging techno-political world in which China and the U.S. are competing to lead the world in these areas.”
… The question is whether you think it’s so much worse in China …– David Murakami Wood, Associate Professor, Queen’s University
Still, the U.S. isn’t the only country feuding with China over technology.
Murakami Wood pointed out that India is also a major player in the global tech sector, adding that the country is currently led by “an incredibly nationalist government” intent on finding “a good excuse here for trying to stop the infiltration of Chinese platforms and Chinese software into the Indian technological space.”
India itself banned 59 mostly Chinese apps — including TikTok — in June, arguing that the software threatened the country’s “sovereignty and integrity.”
“It’s about platforms,” said Murakami Wood. “It’s about technologies.”
Nationals interests and technological nationalism
According to Murakami Wood, it’s not just countries using their own goals to interfere with the global tech sector, major tech players — including Google’s parent company, Alphabet — are finding ways to collaborate with governments to advance corporate interests.
“Google is already the kind of default search engine of choice for everybody, but that’s just the beginning,” he said. “We’re seeing them going into undersea cabling, into creating ideal communities as we saw with Sidewalk Labs … they’re building housing in the Valley in California too, which is based on Google principles.”
Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has also suggested in the past that the social networking giant “can do things better than government,” Murakami Wood said.
He added that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has also shown that as life moves steadily more online, “the more we are forced to interact with these companies, whether we know it or not.”
“We’ll find sooner or later that everything in our lives is being run by these corporations,” he said.
As for Chinese tech giants like Huawei, Baidu and TenCent, that have been accused of having close ties to the Chinese Communist Party, Murakami Wood said he believes the “alignment is much more sympathetic.”
“Not necessarily because the Chinese government controls those companies,” he said. “I think because there is a genuine agreement in terms of what strategic aims are between the leaders of those companies and the Chinese state.”
“So long as the Chinese state continues to be successful using technology in order to advance its particular interests, I think all of those companies will be totally on board with them.”
Global data rules proposed by China “take the wind” out of U.S. accusations
Murakami Wood also addressed the recently announced Chinese “Global Initiative on Data Security” — a move that saw the Asian superpower calling on all nations to better handle data security by setting consistent, global standards.
“It’s really sort of taken the wind out of those U.S. accusations, because they’re putting this forward not just as a kind of bilateral deal between the U.S. and China, what they’re proposing is a whole new global order,” said Murakami Wood.
“They’re actually proposing new global rules for how data management and data collection should work, which, if you’re in the kind of academic or activist field, they don’t look too bad,” he said. “Actually, they look better than actually what many people proposed before in this context.”
Nonetheless, Murakami Wood said he acknowledged the moral high ground to be gained from such a move, saying that China knows “Trump is incredibly unpopular in the world, so he’s not going to win over countries that are neutral on this.”
“China can be seen then as a more honest broker than Trump: Proposing kind of progressive, even human rights-oriented policies, which will absolutely infuriate the U.S.,” he said.
Murakami Wood added that China’s arguments for a kind of data sovereignty belie a more nationalist approach to the internet, similar to arguments that some other countries have proposed about building independent “internets.”
“Even at one point France was talking about this, about having a Francophone internet that would be free from Anglophone spying and so on,” he said. “And so China is certainly trying to win over those sorts of people as well… not just the new authoritarians, but the new nationalists out there in general — the people who are talking about a more nationalist technological agenda.”
[Canada is] always going to be caught in the middle, so we’ve just got to build up our own.– David Murakami Wood
As for Canada’s own interests — placed firmly between the soaring American eagle and the ever growing Chinese dragon — Murakami Wood said the country will need to “play it clever.”
“We’re in a very weak position at the moment, because of a lack of current innovation,” he said. “That’s where we need to concentrate: Making sure [we’re] building up capacity within Canada in this area, and not worrying so much about where we are in relation to China and the U.S.”
“We’re always going to be caught in the middle, so we’ve just got to build up our own.”
Communications technologies as ‘weapon of politics’
For his part, Dwayne Winseck, director of the Canadian Media Concentration Research project and a professor at Carleton University’s school of journalism and communication, says communications technology is often seen as a political lever.
“They’re basically seen as a kind of a weapon of politics, a spearhead of national power for projecting the interests and influence and power of major global superpowers into the international sphere,” he said.
“So it becomes seen as a major resource through which powerful countries exert their influence and their interests on an international plane.”