You’ve probably heard about TikTok, especially lately. President Trump wanted a ban on it, and seems to have endorsed a deal for a U.S.-based version of it. The hundred million U.S. users, and probably their parents, are undoubtedly watching the sequence of events with mixed amusement and concern.
But you may have paid less attention to what’s been going on with WeChat, another China-based app. WeChat was part of the original proposed ban, which a federal judge blocked this weekend, hours before it was due to go into effect (the Commerce Department plans to appeal). The ban is on “transactions,” which, in WeChat’s case, covers a lot of ground.
TikTok was overlooked by authority figures for a long time because it was mostly used by young people and mostly for what seemed, to them, to be trivial purposes. Not so with WeChat; it is deeply engrained in users’ lives, including for their health.
WeChat is owned by Tencent Holdings, one of China’s internet giants. It has been described as a “Swiss Army knife” app, able to do many tasks — not just messaging and social networking, but also games, shopping, and payments. You can order food or book travel. For many users it is a primary source of news, which is part of the problem.
It is also important to users’ health. WeChat is, according to CMI Media, “fast becoming the #1 online healthcare destination in China.” It offers, among other things, health content (some in partnership with U.S. firms), health products, telehealth, a network of “trusted” doctors, a form of health insurance, and WeDoctor. The latter “provides online health enquiry service, psychological support, prevention guidelines and real-time pandemic reports,” and is free to the user. It is available “24/7 for people all over the world.”
If we’re worried about what information China might glean from the video-watching habits of teenagers, think about how worried we should be about China having access to what health information users sought, what medical advice they got, and what health products they ordered.
China is famed for its “Great Firewall,” which restricts which outside internet platforms — like Google or Facebook — can be used within its borders. Equally important, the Chinese government monitors what happens on WeChat and other internet platforms/apps, and does not allow news or opinions it finds objectionable, or subversive. You might think you are in your own Facebook or Twitter bubble in the U.S., but in China — or on WeChat — that bubble is shaped and controlled by the government.
As a result, Politico reported, “Now young online Chinese, once conduits for new ideas that challenge the power structure, are increasingly part of Beijing’s defense operation.” Even U.S. users find their worldview shaped by the content they are allowed to see. As The New York Times said, “it has helped bring Chinese censorship to the world.”
“All of a sudden I discovered talking to others about the issue didn’t make sense,” one user told The New York Times. “It felt like if I only watched Chinese media, all of my thoughts would be different.”
There are estimated to be 19 million U.S. users, out of WeChat’s 1.2 billion users; most are people with family or friends in China, who rely on the app to stay in touch. The U.S. may argue it is worried about what financial and personal information might be going to the Chinese government, but it should be equally worried about what “information” is being served to U.S. users.
Think, for example, what it might tell U.S. users about COVID-19 vaccines.
The U.S. moves make some worry that we’re becoming more like China, leading to the “splinternet” where, as Vox explained, “your experience of the internet increasingly depends on where you live and the whims of the ruling parties there.”
Vox goes on to note:
Nations are increasingly pursuing various forms of internet sovereignty, from Russia building a walled-off intranet to India regularly shutting down the internet in areas of social unrest to some European nations introducing a right to be forgotten from search engines.
It is the opposite of the open access, no borders version of the internet that most of us have believed in for the past thirty years. Aaron Levie, CEO of cloud-computing company Box Inc, warned in The Wall Street Journal: “U.S. tech companies have far more to lose if this becomes a precedent. This creates a Balkanization of the internet and the risk of breaking the power of the internet as one platform.”
One Congressional official told Wired:
We are finally having the debate China had two decades ago, when it put in the Great Firewall because it found foreign technology threatening its political system. Only now is America catching up with foreign technology that is a direct threat to our open system.
But Jason Healey, an expert on cyber conflict, competition and cooperation at Columbia University, told The New York Times: “The vision for a single, interconnected network around the globe is long gone. All we can do now is try to steer toward optimal fragmentation.”
Somehow, “optimal fragmentation” isn’t how I want to think of my internet experience; I suspect that fragmentation won’t be so optimal.
Even if some version of the ban on WeChat goes through, it’s not clear how effective it would be. Options like using VPNs or downloading the app from non-store channels may allow users to continue to use it. In any cases, The Washington Post reported that “the administration does not intend to prosecute anyone for finding new ways to use the apps.”
In discussing the effect of potential WeChat bans with The New York Times, Fang Kecheng, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said: “Information is like water. Water quality can be improved, but without any flow, water easily grows fetid.” He didn’t carry the analogy further, but I will: information is like water, in that, eventually, it will get to where it wants to go.
We don’t have a U.S. platform as versatile as WeChat; we don’t even have a health platform as capable as WeChat’s health capabilities. But, if we’re not careful, WeChat might become that platform.
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