Trump sets a dangerous precedent for democracy as TikTok battle continues in US

Trump sets a dangerous precedent for democracy as TikTok battle continues in US

Trump sets a dangerous precedent for democracy as TikTok battle continues
The United States President Donald Trump has set a dangerous precedent for democracy as TikTok battle continued for its users in the US. Trump's ongoing battle with TikTok is becoming one of the most curious chapters in America's emerging cold war with China. Earlier this week, Trump issued an executive order which gave the Chinese social media giant until the middle of September to find an American buyer or be banned in the country. He also issued a similar executive order for the Chinese messaging service WeChat.

This story draws together several threads. Microsoft is prepared to pay around $50 billion for an app that is primarily used to watch short, funny videos created by other users. The app currently has 100 million American users and analysts believe this might grow so fast it will soon be worth $200 billion. The Trump administration wants to ban the app because it believes its Chinese owners could be required to cooperate with the Chinese government, which in turn, could use the platform for espionage or to spread misinformation, threatening national security. If Microsoft and TikTok cannot pull off this purchase by mid-September -- a tall order for a deal of this size -- Trump pulls the plug on its US operation.

It's an irresistible twist in the Trump administration's four-year diplomatic spat with Beijing and comes hot off Trump pressuring other countries to take a harder line on China.However, critics worry that Trump's latest attempts to turn the screws on China could set a dangerous, anti-democratic precedent in how governments try to control the way citizens use the internet, which will be applauded by leaders of countries where democracy is already backsliding.

"Restricting internet and interfering with people's capacity to criticize power is not unprecedented on a global scale. It has happened in India, Iran and in different parts of Africa," said Nanjala Nyabola, an author and political analyst specializing in politics in the digital age. "What people are struggling with is the fact it's happening in the US. When a country like the US begins to erode the ideas of democracy it naturally opens the door for other countries to do the same."This might seem a dramatic analysis at first glance, given the  comparisons in Iran and Africa, where people are arrested for expressing dissent online. All Trump is talking about is removing certain platforms from the American internet.

It's the fact this is happening in the democratic posterchild that makes Trump's move so notable. "Every time Western leaders undercut free speech and the movement of ideas across boundaries without good reason, the cause of civil liberties is undermined," said Nic Cheeseman, professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham. "It makes it that bit easier for governments seeking to clamp down on social media -- in Iran, in Turkey, in Tanzania -- to shut down critical voices." Whether or not Trump has good reason, as Cheeseman puts it, to shut down TikTok is open to debate. TikTok is owned by a private Chinese company called ByteDance. TikTok itself does not operate in China and, in the case of the US, TikTok maintains that users' data is stored on servers inside the US.

However, China skeptics worry that Beijing could demand TikTok hand over this data. They suspect that the Chinese government could force ByteDance to censor content, as happens routinely on the Chinese internet, most notably on WeChat, where words and images relating to controversial issues like the Tiananmen Square massacre and Tibet are banned from group and private chats. They fear that the platform could be used to spread misinformation in the US. And, ultimately, they believe that the term private company is relative in 
  • China, the autocratic superpower currently locking horns with America.
There is also some irony in the idea that should the US jettison TikTok from the internet, it would be behaving in some respects like China, whose government carefully censors what its citizens can do online. Some of the biggest American tech companies, including Facebook, Twitter and Google are banned in China.

"It is critical that any steps taken are in accord with democratic values .and messaged from the frame of advancing a democratic information space not just countering authoritarian threats," said Laura Rosenberger, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy and senior fellow at the Marshall Fund for the United States. "It's critical that the US not take steps that close ourselves off and create the sovereign information model that Beijing wants and that would weaken democracy."