The United States government does not usually block or censor lawful websites, foreign or domestic, because it subscribes to the idea that the internet was designed to be open and connect everyone on earth. On its face, then, President Trump’s recent treatment of the Chinese apps TikTok and WeChat, which he threatened to ban from the United States unless they could find American buyers, looks close-minded and belligerent.
There is more to this situation, though, than meets the eye. Were almost any country other than China involved, Mr. Trump’s demands would be indefensible. But the threatened bans on TikTok and WeChat, whatever their motivations, can also be seen as an overdue response, a tit for tat, in a long battle for the soul of the internet.
In China, the foreign equivalents of TikTok and WeChat — video and messaging apps such as YouTube and WhatsApp — have been banned for years. The country’s extensive blocking, censorship and surveillance violate just about every principle of internet openness and decency. China keeps a closed and censorial internet economy at home while its products enjoy full access to open markets abroad.
The asymmetry is unfair and ought no longer be tolerated. The privilege of full internet access — the open internet — should be extended only to companies from countries that respect that openness themselves.
Behind the TikTok controversy is an important struggle between two dueling visions of the internet. The first is an older vision: the idea that the internet should, in a neutral fashion, connect everyone, and that blocking and censorship of sites by nation-states should be rare and justified by more than the will of the ruler. The second and newer vision, of which China has been the leading exponent, is “net nationalism,” which views the country’s internet primarily as a tool of state power. Economic growth, surveillance and thought control, from this perspective, are the internet’s most important functions.
China, in furtherance of this vision, bans not only most foreign competitors to its tech businesses but also foreign sources of news, religious instruction and other information, while using the internet to promote state propaganda and engage in foreign electoral interference. Though China is the pioneer of net nationalism, it is on the rise elsewhere, particularly in nations like Saudi Arabia and Iran and, more recently, Turkey and India.
For many years, laboring under the vain expectation that China, succumbing to inexorable world-historical forces, would become more like us, Western democracies have allowed China to exploit this situation. We have accepted, with only muted complaints, Chinese censorship and blocking of content from abroad while allowing Chinese companies to explore and exploit whatever markets it likes. Few foreign companies are allowed to reach Chinese citizens with ideas or services, but the world is fully open to China’s online companies.
From China’s perspective, the asymmetry has been a bonanza that has served economic as well as political goals. While China does have great engineers, European nations overrun by American tech companies must be jealous of the thriving tech industry that China has built in the absence of serious foreign competition (aided by the theft of trade secrets). At the same time, China has managed, to an extent many believed impossible, to use the internet to suppress any nascent political opposition and ceaselessly promote its ruling party. The idealists who thought the internet would automatically create democracy in China were wrong.
Some think that it is a tragic mistake for the United States to violate the principles of internet openness that were pioneered in this country. But there is also such a thing as being a sucker. If China refuses to follow the rules of the open internet, why continue to give it access to internet markets around the world?
None of this is to claim that when it comes to internet surveillance, the United States government or American tech firms are free from sin. Nor is it to defend the bellicose and unilateral manner in which Mr. Trump has handled TikTok and WeChat. He is the wrong figure to be fighting this fight, particularly because his inclinations are suspect. One imagines he might prefer an American internet designed to serve his propaganda needs. A better approach would be for more of the world to isolate China in concert.
But Mr. Trump’s provocations do make one thing clear: We need to wake up to the game we are playing when it comes to the future of the global internet. The idealists of the 1990s and early ’00s believed that building a universal network, a kind of digital cosmopolitanism, would lead to world peace and harmony. No one buys that fantasy any longer. But if we want decency and openness to survive on the internet — surely a more attainable goal — the nations that hold such values need to begin fighting to protect them.
Tim Wu is a law professor at Columbia University, a contributing Opinion writer and the author, most recently, of The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age.