Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

U.S. ‘Clean Network’ Campaign Attempts to Wall Off Chinese Hardware, Software, and Cloud Services

Jane Li, Quartz:

Under the expanded initiative, which focuses on five areas, “untrusted” Chinese telecom carriers, apps, and cloud service providers including Alibaba, Tencent, and Baidu will be prevented from storing or processing US user data, being downloaded from US app stores, or connected to the US telecom system. Moreover, Chinese smartphone makers such as Huawei will be prevented from pre-installing or offering downloads of some US or foreign apps. Undersea cables that connect the US to the global internet will also be scrutinized by the US government.

While the announcement does not give a timeline of the initiative or explain whether it is compulsory for American entities to comply, the announcement is an escalation of the country’s efforts to divide the internet between China and the US. Most recently, the US has made a series of threats to ban Chinese apps including TikTok and WeChat, citing their threats to national security. TikTok will either have to be sold to a US company such as Microsoft, or face shutting down by the Sept. 15 deadline given by the White House. A growing number of US allies are also following suit in choosing to exclude Chinese telecoms equipment maker Huawei from their 5G networks.

Wall Street Journal reporter Te-Ping Chen:

Wincing at the choice of language here. did we really need to use ‘clean,’ redolent as it is w/years of slurs against Chinese people as being dirty & diseased?

Rachel Lerman, Washington Post:

President Trump issued two executive orders late Thursday against China-based TikTok and messaging app WeChat, citing national security concerns in a sweeping order that could prevent the companies from doing most business in the United States.

The orders take effect in 45 days and prohibits any U.S. company or person from transacting with ByteDance, TikTok’s Chinese parent company, or WeChat. While the nature of the banned transactions are not specific, it may mean the companies would not be able to appear on Apple’s App Store or Google’s Play Store in the United States. It also could make it illegal for U.S. companies to purchase advertising on TikTok.

But the order should not affect a deal if Microsoft or another U.S. firm manages to buy TikTok before the 45 days are up.

As Lerman reports, this order is probably a way to force a faster sale of TikTok to a U.S.-based firm. Still, that leaves in place the restrictions of the similar WeChat order. This is all very concerning, of course.

Ryan Mac and Craig Silverman, reporting for Buzzfeed News before these executive orders were issued:

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told his employees Thursday that banning TikTok in the United States would set “a really bad long-term precedent.”

[…]

While Zuckerberg noted that TikTok, banned in India in June, was being hit now, he alluded to the idea that a Facebook product could become a target for another country later. He did, however, sympathize with the Trump administration’s national security concerns.

From the text of the executive order concerning TikTok:

TikTok also reportedly censors content that the Chinese Communist Party deems politically sensitive, such as content concerning protests in Hong Kong and China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities. This mobile application may also be used for disinformation campaigns that benefit the Chinese Communist Party, such as when TikTok videos spread debunked conspiracy theories about the origins of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus.

This guy is complaining about TikTok spreading pandemic conspiracy theories? This guy? This guy? This fucking guy?

If I’m reading all of this right, the U.S. government has set a forty-five day countdown on a prohibition of financial relationships with TikTok and WeChat, citing concerns about the amount of data both apps collect on their users, and theft of intellectual property. This is likely to cause retaliation, according to the chief executive of a company that just released a clone of TikTok. The U.S. government is slowly building something like an all-American Patriotic Firewall of Freedom, but is dragging its feet on any regulation of personal data collection more generally.

I don’t mean to imply that the Chinese and U.S. governments are exactly equal in their nationalist policies. Clearly, while some officials in the U.S. have newfound enthusiasm for neo-McCarthyist xenophobia, they are presently in the strongman G League compared to the actions of the Chinese government in Xinjiang and its attempts to exert power in Hong Kong. There are very real differences in the alleged mining of data by a totalitarian government, and the collection of data by private companies which sometimes hand it over to a democratic government, and they should not be falsely equivocated.

But these U.S. government actions are deeply concerning for their outward display of power, while likely having little material effect. Shoshana Wodinsky, Gizmodo:

Ironically enough, this means that, in a sense, the Trump administration’s worst nightmares about offshore data sharing are kind of reality — only it has nothing to do with whether the platform is based in the U.S. or anywhere else. The entire clusterfuck of digital dollars that fuels our internet has essentially flattened state lines by promising people that they can tap into any consumer, anywhere they want—for a price.

The layers of intermediary partners mean that even if TikTok (or Google, or any other major tech player) swears up and down that it keeps any user data here in the U.S., that point is mostly moot. As soon as a foreign intermediary gets its hands on the data, any liability — or really, any control — is largely out of a U.S.-based company’s hands. Hell, even if you try to wedge a company like Microsoft in there, the point is still moot, because it has a massive footprint in Shanghai that helps local brands use Bing to target “high-end” consumers in America and abroad.

All of this almost certainly has nothing to do with keeping U.S. users safe from whatever as-yet unproven dangers that are apparently exclusive to Chinese-made apps, and everything to do with exerting power and influence. Here’s hoping for a day sometime soon when neither country is run by people intoxicated by their own machismo.