Officials in Washington have been sounding the security alarm about TikTok for years, but now the United States is closer than ever to blocking the social app from operating within its borders. TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew’s appearance before the House Energy and Commerce Committee earlier this month just seemed to make things worse for the company: Many lawmakers said outright that they believe TikTok should be banned. Chew was reluctant to criticize the Chinese government or state outright that they could not access TikTok’s data, which only heightened suspicions.
Meanwhile, lawmakers in the Senate are crafting a legal process for enacting a ban, and setting a framework for future restrictions. Introduced earlier this month by Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat representing Virginia, the RESTRICT Act is a blueprint for how the U.S. could take action against foreign tech moving forward. It lays out the new government process for restricting tech products that threaten national security. RESTRICT doesn’t name TikTok specifically, but it’s widely understood that the app would probably be the first use of the new process. The bill targets six specific “adversary nations”: China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela. But RESTRICT is also part of a broader shift in U.S. policy, away from a single global tech ecosystem and towards a future in which who uses what app is increasingly decided by national borders.
That fragmented future poses a challenge for U.S. companies like Apple that rely on Chinese manufacturing. But it’s also an ominous sign for tech companies around the world: After decades of advocacy for free trade and an open internet, the U.S. government is getting ready to treat foreign software as a national security threat.
In the days following Chew’s visit to Washington, Rest of World talked with Sen. Warner over the phone about that shift, and what it means for the global tech industry in China and beyond.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
A lot of the conversation around TikTok has focused on U.S. interests — but since this is Rest of World, I want to take a bigger view. What would you say to an entrepreneur in Brazil or Nigeria who is worried about their app being banned in five or 10 years? The RESTRICT Act’s specific provisions are limited to a handful of countries, but a lot of people are still worried about a broader shift towards protectionism. Is this the U.S. tipping the scales towards U.S. products?
One of the important things about RESTRICT is that it’s not a TikTok-only bill. This is a framework to deal with communication technologies like TikTok, but it also deals with challenges from the adversarial nations around artificial intelligence or quantum computing or synthetic biology. It really is a framework of how we deal with foreign technology from adversarial nations that fall into the national security realm.
So the first thing we would say is, any ban has got to be rules-based and it’s got to be transparent. The RESTRICT Act would still give TikTok its day in court. And this is where we differ from some of my friends who want to name TikTok in the bill itself. We feel like that would simply invite retaliation. We felt that we had to set up a regime such that, if Country X decided to set up exactly the same regime, we couldn’t criticize it as being unfair. So that’s where I sit.
For most of the past 20 years, the conventional wisdom in U.S. foreign policy was that more trade with China would nudge the country towards democracy and bring it closer to U.S. values. RESTRICT would be a huge break from that approach. What changed?
I was part of that conventional wisdom. In the beginning of the first decade, I think we were all wildly techno-optimists. And that was on a bipartisan basis. But then we saw President Xi come to power. We saw the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] tighten its grip. We saw the Orwellian surveillance state that China has used its own technology to build. We saw the change in law in 2017 that mandates that the CCP can get access to anything in any Chinese company. The conventional wisdom was wrong and we’ve just got to acknowledge it. There are still American companies who don’t want to believe the reality because they may be short-term making money out of that market. But the willingness to turn a blind eye to the CCP treatment of the Uyghurs or treatment of the people of Hong Kong has diminished a lot.
Beyond TikTok, do you worry that this precedent pushes the U.S. towards a more nationalized tech industry, where most people are only using technology made in their own country?
This TikTok concern is not America-only. Three years ago, India banned it outright. More recently, Canada and the U.K. have banned it off government phones. The Danish have told all their journalists to get off TikTok because chances are you’re being monitored by the Chinese. So I don’t think we’ll move towards technology localization — I hope we don’t.
But I also want to make it very clear that if, for whatever reason, TikTok goes away, I do believe that another app will arise for the influencers who make money off of this and the people who love the creativity that takes place on TikTok. And it doesn’t have to be an American app. It could be an Indian app or a French app or a Brazilian app. So if there’s going to be this [split], my hope would be that what splits off would be the most authoritarian regimes — Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, Cuba — so that there’s kind of an authoritarian technology marketplace and then everyone else.
At the same time, we do have a lot of U.S. tech companies still relying on Chinese manufacturing.
Absolutely. And what I’ve told them is, any company that does not have a Plan B is being irresponsible. Because President Xi could decide to start sending arms to Russia. There’s been no evidence that Xi is not still focused on eventual unification with Taiwan. So I’m not in favor of decoupling, but if that happens, decoupling will be forced upon people.
A lot of the concerns brought up at the House hearing were about broader social media problems like data privacy, user safety, and algorithmic misinformation. TikTok struggles with those issues, but no more than Facebook or YouTube. Do you worry that focusing on TikTok is letting American companies off the hook?
Yes, it’s a concern. There are a lot of concerns I have about all social media platforms — from privacy to the Section 230 get-out-of-jail-free card to the failure to have data portability and interoperability, basic competitive tools, the concerns I have about dark patterns. I introduced a bunch of good bipartisan bills. They’ve not gone very far. So yes, there is some concern that we say, “Well, we dealt with TikTok and we’re done.” But there is a significant difference at the end of the day: For all of my gripes with Meta, I don’t think at the end of the day that Meta’s leadership is turning over information to the Communist Party of China. That is a huge distinction.
A lot of people — myself included — hoped the internet would be an international space for free expression, out of the reach of national governments. Do you think RESTRICT and other software restrictions will mean the end of that idea?
I hope not. But for me, it comes back to the hypocrisy of the Chinese government. China has prohibited American apps like Facebook and Google from their market for years. The Chinese version of Twitter is completely censored by the Chinese government.
One point I’m trying to make, and we see it with Huawei, we saw it with the CHIPS bill, we’re going to see it with other things: The definition of national security used to be tanks and guns and ships and planes. But in the 21st century, it’s going to be more determined by who wins the battle to dominate technological domains.
Think about the ramifications if you had a Chinese AI platform that was ruling the world and you’ve got those authoritarian values built in. Or if China becomes successful in quantum computing or synthetic biology. These all used to be viewed as just the private sector trying to do well — but in my mind, they’re national security issues. We’ve never had a competitor like this. Russia was a military threat and an ideological threat. It wasn’t really a domain-dominating threat. And we and our friends or partners will need to pick up our game.
There is a window here for non-authoritarian regimes to bind together. It’s very different from pre-[Covid-19], when you had China putting a lot of money in countries around the world with its Belt and Road Initiative. But you’ve had three things happen: You saw China’s repressive tactics during Covid to its own people, its lack of transparency about sourcing of Covid. You saw China align with Russia. And you saw a lot of nations that thought they were going to get a great railroad or road built in their country, and instead China would bring in its own workforce. So those ended up generally with a pretty crummy final product and massively in debt.
But just talking about who’s on which side is difficult, because candidly, when we use language like “the West,” we piss off Africa, South America, and most of Asia. Even when you use the term “democracy” and then the Biden administration doesn’t invite Singapore to their democracy summit, you make a mistake. It’s really important to build as all-encompassing a coalition as possible.