Skip to main content

Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience possible, please make sure any ad blockers are switched off, or add to your trusted sites, and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help you can email us.

Trump, TikTok and Twitter – the worldwide war of the web

A female protester displays a Hong Kong independence message on her mobile phone during a demonstration. Photo: Geovien So/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images - Credit: SOPA Images/LightRocket via Gett

The internet is a raging battlefield in the conflict between democracies and authoritarian states, says JOHN KAMPFNER, and freedom seems certain to be the first casualty.

Like the wheel, the electric bulb and the printing press, the internet is with us for eternity. What has gone is much of the initial hope that this invention would change humankind for the better. Indeed, it may be said by historians that a certain Donald J Trump could have administered the last rites to those dreams in the summer of 2020.

A decade ago, even at the height of the Arab Spring, a number of tech policy experts were warning of the dangers. Since then the direction has all been one way: disinformation, deception, cyber-bullying, hoovering of data without people’s knowledge, armies of bots spreading fake news.

The digital sphere had become one of the main vehicles for cracking down on freedoms and for undermining public confidence in democracy. Much of it has emanated from Russia – the interference in the US elections of 2016, hacking the German Bundestag, meddling in the French elections and buying up British politics.

Very late in the day western governments have woken up, and therein lies the dilemma. They have decided that cyber content cannot be left to corporations.

If democratic states determine what is legitimate speech, seek to differentiate between truth and lies or deny access to countries or groups, then are they not playing into the hands of their adversaries with long histories of censorship and control?

Which is where Trump comes in. The US president has made no secret of his admiration for dictators ranging from out-and-out despots such as Kim Jong-un to the more brand-aware 21st century variant such as Vladimir Putin. He has barely concealed disdain for sticklers for process such as Angela Merkel.

In perhaps the only area of policy of the past four years that is worthy of merit, Trump is the first incumbent in the White House to see the dangers posed by China.

Beijing has used cyber to great effect to fulfil its broader strategy goals. As Eric Schmidt, former chairman of Google’s holding company Alphabet pointed out late last year: ‘The Chinese internet is a greater percentage of GDP of China, which is a big number, than the same percentage of the US, which is also a big number.’

Schmidt should know. Google’s Project Dragonfly was to be the company’s first significant inroad into the impenetrable Chinese market – a censored search engine specifically for that country.

In commercial terms, it made sense. Silicon Valley long ago shed its pretence of inhabiting the moral high ground. In the end, however, Google was forced by a combination of employee and Congressional pressure to abandon the idea.

American dominance of the worldwide web is steadily dwindling, in concert with the rise of China. Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu and other Chinese corporations are now among the biggest global players, from social media to e-commerce to hardware to networks. Huawei and its domination of global 5G is just one of many examples.

In late July, at a ceremony in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, president Xi Jinping officially commissioned the start of the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System, China’s rival to America’s GPS, following a series of successful satellite launches.

China is now near to achieving complete digital self-sufficiency. The biggest advantage in having your own system is security of access. You are not relying on another country to provide it.

That country could deny users access, particularly in times of tension. In terms of removing the dominance of one state, some might regard that as sensible.

It also marks the formalisation of the ‘splinternet’, the break-up of the internet on regional, national and political lines, led in one corner by the Chinese Great Firewall and on the other by the newly-dubbed American Grand Cyber Canyon.

Trump’s cyber fightback has had nothing to do with civil liberties – he believes those are for wimps. It is a powerplay. China has long kept the big American trends out of its market. Trump now has decided to do the same to them.

His recent executive orders banning Tik Tok, encouraging Microsoft to buy it, set a number of dangerous precedents, not least the overt interference by government in corporate decisions.

He also declared that WeChat would not be allowed to operate in the US. The administration is determined to stop Chinese companies from supplying undersea fibre cables, restricting China’s cloud providers from holding sensitive US data, and preventing ‘untrusted’ vendors such as Huawei from pre-installing and distributing US-made mobile apps. ‘We want to see untrusted Chinese apps removed from US app stores,’ declared his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.

This is all part of what State Department calls its ‘Clean Networks’ initiative. Such a term could just as easily be used in China, Russia or any authoritarian regime.

Internet experts almost universally condemned the executive orders. Some suggested it might violate the First Amendment to freedom of expression. ‘It’s the policy equivalent of a jingoistic temper tantrum,’ said Ronald Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto.

It is worth briefly recalling the original vision of the internet. The writer Evgeny Morozov, who has tracked the rise and fall of tech idealism over the years, describes the founding fathers as a group of Californians ‘who had fond memories of the tumultuous hedonism of the 1960s’.

He added: ‘Anti-Hobbesian at heart, they viewed the state and its institutions as an obstacle to be overcome – and what better way to transcend them than via cyberspace?’

The world wide web came into the public consciousness in the early 1990s in the United States. It was global in ambition, but it was very American, supported by the military initially.

The US was the only country without a national domain, dot com, not dot US. Everything emanated from there, particularly from the West Coast.

This network of networks was intended to provide a single layer for the transfer of human knowledge. It was inextricably linked to the spread of democracy and free market: in a global world of free-flowing information, the yearning to throw off the shackles of dictatorship would become irresistible.

Once authoritarians became wise to the potential of the internet, battle was joined. Who controls content? Who controls, even more dangerously, access to the internet?

From China to Russia, from North Korea to Iran and most recently Belarus, governments have shown how easy it has become to renationalise cyberspace.

Is the Balkanisation of the internet the cause or the effect of the demise of democracy around the world? The answer, inevitably, is both.

In some ways Western governments are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. If they sit back and do nothing, the status quo being curated by the Chinese and Russians will become only stronger.

The issue therefore has not been whether to intervene and to regulate, but how. Trump might have been right in his broad analysis of the threat from China and elsewhere, yet in the specifics of his response, in seeking to reassert American ‘control’ of the internet, he has only increased the resolve of authoritarian regimes.

When countries and political systems cede the moral high ground, there is no going back.

Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience possible, please make sure any ad blockers are switched off, or add to your trusted sites, and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help you can email us.