Putting the phone down: age of in­no­cence over as apps be­come pawns in new dig­i­tal cold war

TikTok sale is only the start of dis­rup­tion for the sec­tor, write Hasan Chowd­hury and Han­nah Boland

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Technology Intelligen­ce -

As of­fi­cials in Wash­ing­ton raise se­cu­rity con­cerns over TikTok’s ties to China, a make or break mo­ment faces the vi­ral video app. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has threat­ened to ban TikTok un­less it agrees to sell its US op­er­a­tions to Mi­crosoft or some other Amer­i­can provider by Sept 15. He also wants a cut of the deal.

China has hit back at what it de­scribed as Trump’s “out­right bul­ly­ing”. “This goes against the prin­ci­ples of the mar­ket econ­omy and the prin­ci­ples of open­ness, trans­parency and non-dis­crim­i­na­tion,” said for­eign min­istry spokesman Wang Wen­bin.

TikTok may see such moves as a sign it is be­ing used as a geopo­lit­i­cal foot­ball, but it is not alone. The smart­phones in peo­ple’s pock­ets are in­creas­ingly be­com­ing a bat­tle­ground for na­tion states look­ing to an­tag­o­nise one an­other in dig­i­tal proxy wars.

“TikTok will be one of the first domi­nos to fall in what will be a lengthy process where lots of other apps get banned,” says Sanchit Jain, an an­a­lyst at En­ders Anal­y­sis. “It is not unique in the Chi­nese app sphere.”

Re­cent skir­mishes be­tween China and In­dia made this clear. Fol­low­ing a ma­jor mil­i­tary clash be­tween the two coun­tries, In­dia said it was ban­ning 59 Chi­nese apps. Among them were TikTok – the sub­con­ti­nent is the app’s largest mar­ket out­side China with more than 600m down­loads, ac­cord­ing to re­search firm Sen­sorTower – and WeChat.

In­dia has since stepped up its ac­tions with a ban on a fur­ther 47 apps, and it is re­port­edly re­view­ing hun­dreds of oth­ers. “This sets a dan­ger­ous prece­dent for the US,” said Samm Sacks, a fel­low on cy­ber­se­cu­rity pol­icy and China dig­i­tal econ­omy at the New

Amer­ica think-tank.

“We are mov­ing down a path of techno-na­tion­al­ism.” Al­though the clam­p­down on apps has been buoyed in re­cent months by grow­ing an­tiChi­nese sen­ti­ment, it is China that has a long his­tory of shun­ning for­eign apps.

China walled off its own on­line sphere years ago, us­ing the so-called “Great Fire­wall” to cre­ate an al­ter­nate uni­verse where Ten­cent Hold­ings and Alibaba stood in for the likes of Face­book and Ama­zon.

It has shut out ser­vices like Twit­ter, forced for­eign firms to se­cure lo­cal part­ners and dis­trib­u­tors in ar­eas from mo­bile games to cloud ser­vices, and cur­tailed in­vest­ment in ar­eas such as on­line bank­ing. Mi­crosoft’s Bing and LinkedIn, which both cen­sor con­tent in China, re­main the only ma­jor search en­gine and so­cial net­work al­lowed to op­er­ate there.

“We should re­spect every coun­try’s own choice of their in­ter­net de­vel­op­ment path and man­age­ment model, their in­ter­net public pol­icy and the right to par­tic­i­pate in man­ag­ing in­ter­na­tional cy­berspace,” pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping told at­ten­dees at a high­pro­file in­ter­net con­fer­ence in 2015.

“There should be no cy­ber­hege­mony, no in­ter­fer­ing in oth­ers’ in­ter­nal af­fairs, no en­gag­ing, sup­port­ing or in­cit­ing cy­ber­ac­tiv­i­ties that would harm the na­tional se­cu­rity of other coun­tries.”

Clau­dia Ver­bost of Agency China says Bei­jing’s ban on non-Chi­nese apps has al­lowed the po­lit­i­cal regime to re­tain tight con­trols on the in­for­ma­tion made avail­able to cit­i­zens on­line.

“The Great Fire­wall is there in the eyes of the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment to pro­tect its peo­ple and as a con­se­quence tech­nol­ogy firms have an ad­van­tage,” she says.

Though geopo­lit­i­cal tus­sles are of­ten ex­er­cises in mere point scor­ing over ad­ver­saries, bat­tles on a tech­no­log­i­cal front can have dire con­se­quences, as bans on apps can mean shut­ting down ac­cess to pow­er­ful tools of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Dur­ing protests in 2017, Iran re­stricted ac­cess to both mes­sag­ing app Tele­gram and photo-shar­ing plat­form In­sta­gram, which had been used to or­gan­ise the anti-es­tab­lish­ment ral­lies, in a move of­fi­cials claimed was to “main­tain tran­quil­lity”.

Oth­ers were more scep­ti­cal. “Ob­vi­ously, our neu­tral­ity and re­fusal to take sides in such con­flicts can cre­ate pow­er­ful en­e­mies,” Tele­gram chief ex­ec­u­tive Pavel Durov had writ­ten at the time.

Iran is not alone in cut­ting ac­cess to such apps. Brazil has blocked What­sApp mul­ti­ple times, a mes­sag­ing app which is seen as vi­tal in a coun­try where reg­u­lar phone call and text mes­sage rates are pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive. In 2016, for ex­am­ple, it sus­pended the app af­ter it failed to hand over chat logs which re­lated to a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion in the coun­try.

Rus­sia banned LinkedIn four years ago over claims it did not com­ply with per­sonal data reg­u­la­tions. Crit­ics claimed the move was about cen­sor­ship and gain­ing con­trol.

More re­cently, gov­ern­ments have not just been tak­ing these mea­sures to cau­tion com­pa­nies them­selves – now apps are be­ing used as “po­lit­i­cal pawns”, says Emma Mohr-McClune at Glob­alData.

Smart­phone apps rely on a global base of reg­u­lar users, she says. They need mass, un­fet­tered dig­i­tal en­gage­ment – and “in re­strict­ing ac­cess to one na­tion of users, na­tional lead­ers are in ef­fect im­pos­ing a new form of dig­i­tal em­bargo”.

Few politi­cians would ad­mit as much. At least pub­licly, con­cerns on China have cen­tred on ac­cess to data and whether Bei­jing is tap­ping into pri­vate in­for­ma­tion about cit­i­zens. Chi­nese-owned com­pa­nies may re­ject such claims, but these fears are not with­out merit, an­a­lysts say.

“With many Chi­nese apps, the US gov­ern­ment or the In­dian gov­ern­ment aren’t aware of how that data is be­ing mined,” says En­ders’ Jain. Only now, he says, these is­sues are be­ing trans­formed into some­thing much more con­tentious.

“Gov­ern­ments are in­creas­ingly turn­ing these grey data prac­tices into hot top­ics, whereby they are able to gar­ner a lot of po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal with their voter base. They’re al­most weapon­is­ing these is­sues,” Jain says.

How this will feed into the UK re­mains to be seen. Bri­tain has re­cently sig­nalled it will fol­low suit with the US on China, this sum­mer hav­ing per­formed a U-turn on Huawei and block­ing the Chi­nese firm from its tele­com net­works fol­low­ing pres­sure from Trump. Ex­perts say there is a fine line for

Bri­tish politi­cians to tread, with trade deals with both China and the US on the line. “Sit­ting and wait­ing to see where it all falls re­ally is the best thing for the UK at the mo­ment,” Jain says.

Dr Jie Yu, se­nior re­search fel­low on China at Chatham House, says Chi­nese of­fi­cials are un­likely to come to the de­fence of Bytedance as they did with Huawei. China al­ready has wildly suc­cess­ful so­cial me­dia apps in the form of WeChat, and TikTok is un­likely to fig­ure in a big way in the coun­try’s long-term am­bi­tions of be­com­ing a tech­no­log­i­cal pow­er­house. “China can cer­tainly af­ford to lose so­cial me­dia plat­forms be­cause they have plenty of other apps which have be­come part of the Chi­nese state ma­chin­ery,” she says.

But it will no doubt be as­sess­ing how things play out with TikTok. Many Chi­nese com­pa­nies have had one eye on in­ter­na­tional des­ti­na­tions in re­cent years, hav­ing es­tab­lished them­selves in their home mar­ket. Any ma­noeu­vres to ban TikTok or siphon off the app to west­ern ri­vals will make them more wary about where they take their prod­ucts next. But other apps will have to keep close watch too, as the TikTok saga makes clear that these are no longer spa­ces for vi­ral videos and memes but high-stakes are­nas of in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tick­ing.

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