What the anger over TikTok tells us about US tech policy

The US will protect its tech monopolies at all cost

What the anger over TikTok tells us about US tech policy

Good news: The US government hasn’t banned TikTok yet, though the prospect of it still looms over conversations about the platform and the wider US-China relationship.

A few weeks ago in an issue of the Roundup, I explained why I wasn’t buying the arguments being made for a potential TikTok ban. In short, the problems being ascribed to it are problems with the wider social media landscape, and at its core, the push to kick TikTok out of the US (and the “Western alliance”) is more about protecting US tech companies than other concerns like privacy, security, or speech.

Given the positive reaction to the thoughts I quickly put down in that issue, I decided to expand on that argument and add a bit of additional historical context to back up my points about how we should see US tech policy through the lens of political economy and its desire to first expand and now protect its dominant tech companies. In particular, I argue that the US push for a global, open internet was less about promoting free speech and similar ideals, and more about ensuring its companies would have an easier path to global dominance as other countries were targeted if they tried to protect their own domestic tech industries from more advanced US competitors.

The piece was published by Jacobin, and is free of a paywall so anyone can go read it. But before I send you over there I want to address one more point.

In the article, I’m taking a more high-level look at what’s driving the US turn against TikTok and Chinese tech more broadly, as Chinese tech companies start giving US companies some serious competition. But I don’t really address the question of what happens if TikTok isn’t banned, so I’d like to be clear about that.

I don’t support a TikTok ban, but I do think regulation of social media is necessary — and maybe this is something to explore in a future piece. That could include regulation of how data is collected and used; how recommendation algorithms work; and even how to react to certain kinds of hateful and abusive posts on the platforms. However, I’m skeptical that will happen in the United States because, ultimately, that would affect its domestic tech companies and their business models.

We’ve already seen how tough it’s been to move antitrust efforts forward, and other tech regulation faces similar difficulties. I’d argue it’s more of a challenge for the US to regulate its tech companies than, for example, the EU, because the EU is generally applying regulations to foreign companies (the US tech giants), whereas the US would be targeting its own companies — companies that politicians may like to rail against, but which the state ultimately doesn’t want to see become less internationally competitive. And now those companies are already using the prospect of Chinese competition to argue against regulation, as Eric Schmidt was doing just the other day to oppose a pause on AI development.

I guess what I’m saying is that these companies and the industry’s leadership are going to keep finding ways to “move fast and break things” with impunity, and China is the latest argument they can use to evade regulation.

With that said, if you want more on my thoughts on the proposed TikTok ban and what it signals about US tech policy more broadly, go check out my new piece in Jacobin. Here’s a little taste:

In 1989, Senator Al Gore made the case that “the nation which most completely assimilates high-performance computing into its economy will very likely emerge as the dominant intellectual, economic, and technological force in the next century.” He saw the digital technologies taking hold in that moment as a means of extending US power, and that was particularly the case with the internet. As Daniel Greene explains in The Promise of Access, the internet was “an instrument of soft power” that became an important means of expanding the global influence of the United States and the market for its tech companies.

Seen through that lens, the notion that governments around the world had to ensure unfettered access to the internet lest they violate the rights of their citizens was part of a larger neoliberal framework that included expectations of free trade and unrestricted capital flows. Those politics further empowered US and Western capital at the expense of other countries’ domestic tech industries.

In the United States, such an approach to the internet was presented as a means of protecting free speech abroad, but it also ensured governments around the world had a hard time challenging the global dominance of US tech companies. If governments tried to restrict them in favor of domestic alternatives, they would be accused of an authoritarian crackdown.

China’s “Great Firewall” is indeed a tool of internet censorship that allows the Chinese government to restrict users’ access to particular topics. But more importantly, it’s a form of economic protectionism that limits the activities of foreign technology companies to allow domestic firms to innovate and grow so they can eventually become internationally competitive. China applied long-standing lessons on the use of trade barriers and industrial policy to develop domestic industry to the internet era, and it’s clearly been very successful. But that would’ve been virtually impossible if it hadn’t placed restrictions on foreign competition.

Read the rest of the piece in Jacobin.