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TikTok ban: Facebook, tech companies benefit from US nationalism

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  • The US government is considering banning TikTok as nationalist “security” concerns about the Chinese app grow.
  • That’s great news for American tech companies like Facebook.
  • In recent years, there has been increased political and regulatory scrutiny of the American tech giants.
  • But the companies are able to leverage concerns about foreign tech’s influence to ward off unwanted regulation.
  • In 2019, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg argued that “the future of the global internet” is at stake.

On Friday, Amazon informed employees that buzzy app TikTok is a security risk and they needed to delete it immediately, only to row back on that message hours later, saying it was “sent in error.”

The full story behind Amazon’s perplexing about-face isn’t yet clear. But it’s reflective of a growing distrust in American political circles of Chinese-owned technology firms — a distrust that America’s homegrown tech giants are trying to harness to their own advantage to stave off the looming specter of regulation.

Over the past few years, public and political scrutiny of major US tech firms like Facebook, Google, and Amazon has steadily heightened, fed by a seemingly unending string of scandals and an increased recognition of the companies’ extraordinary size and market power.

They now face varying calls for regulation from both the left and the right: from reform of Section 230, the law that underpins content moderation online, to calls for aggressive antitrust action that will tear the companies into their constituent parts.

This criticism has taken place against the backdrop of a nationalist Trump White House that is, rhetorically at least, aggressively challenging China. Big tech has been quick to leap on this in their defence. Take a speech from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about “free expression” in October 2019:

“This raises a larger question about the future of the global internet. China is building its own internet focused on very different values, and is now exporting their vision of the internet to other countries. Until recently, the internet in almost every country outside China has been defined by American platforms with strong free expression values. There’s no guarantee these values will win out. A decade ago, almost all of the major internet platforms were American. Today, six of the top ten are Chinese.

“We’re beginning to see this in social media. While our services, like WhatsApp, are used by protesters and activists everywhere due to strong encryption and privacy protections, on TikTok, the Chinese app growing quickly around the world, mentions of these protests are censored, even in the US.

“Is that the internet we want?”

Zuckerberg presents the contemporary internet as a modern-day clash of civilizations: A struggle between the enlightened, freedom-loving West and censorious China. And that’s a warning to policy makers: Regulate us too much, and the Communists might win.

He’s not wrong about China, of course: It’s a totalitarian regime that stifles freedom of speech and locks people up in concentration camps by the hundreds of thousands.

Now, the targeting of TikTok indicates the argument is gaining ground, to the benefit of America’s homegrown tech firms.

Trump, who has been railing against Chinese telecom giant Huawei for years, is now turning his ire on TikTok, with reports swirling that the White House plans to attempt to ban the app in the US over purported security concerns. After the Amazon news first broke (and before it recanted), Republican Senator Josh Hawley wrote that “now the whole federal government should follow suit” in banning it from their employees’ phones.

And, although Amazon walked back its ban, at least one other big American company has banned TikTok for employees: Wells Fargo, as The Information reported on Friday afternoon.

Big tech companies benefit from this in an immediate way: If the US government bans foreign competitors, it means American tech companies, to state the obvious, have less competition.

But it also illustrates that arguments like Zuckerberg’s are effective, and that even nominal critics of American tech firms like Hawley are still keen to see decisive action taken against outside companies that might encroach on their turf. That fear can be leveraged to try to ward off regulation that’s overly onerous or damaging to the American technology companies’ interests — lest the Communists win.

Got a tip? Contact Business Insider reporter Rob Price via encrypted messaging app Signal (+1 650-636-6268), encrypted email ([email protected]), standard email ([email protected]), Telegram/Wickr/WeChat (robaeprice), or Twitter DM (@robaeprice). We can keep sources anonymous. Use a non-work device to reach out. PR pitches by standard email only, please.

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