On Friday, Sept. 25, at noon Eastern, the Free Speech Project will host an hourlong online event examining TikTok, WeChat, and the threatened bans’ implications for the U.S.-China relationship. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.
Amid the countless headlines about the possible TikTok ban in the United States, something far bigger has been overlooked: the parallel pending ban on WeChat, an app made by the Chinese company Tencent that has an estimated 1 billion users globally. Little known and understood in the United States, it forms the backbone of online social life for people in China and for those with ties to China, serving as a messaging app, social network, news site, and miniature app environment all in one. WeChat Pay is a critical piece of e-payment infrastructure, moving trillions of dollars annually around the world, while the app communicates seamlessly with Weixin, the identical Chinese-language app operated within mainland China.
While a TikTok ban would disrupt the U.S.
influencer economy and eliminate a space of true joy during these pandemic times, a ban on WeChat would cut off one of the few social tethers between mainland China, which already has stringent internet control mechanisms in place, and the U.S. Because of China’s Great Firewall restrictions on most popular messaging apps, people in the U.S. with familial, business, and social ties to China—whether Chinese Americans, Tibetan refugees, Uyghurs, or former expats—already face severe restrictions to speaking with loved ones on the mainland—. Equally troubling is how these bans allow executive powers to dictate the internet access of people in the U.S. with little oversight, breaking further democratic norms and processes.
Like TikTok, the ban on WeChat was set to come in steps—first, a block on downloading via iOS and Android, which was originally slated for Sunday. Before it went into effect, however, a judge hearing a case challenging the ban issued an injunction, so WeChat is safe, for the moment. But many are already prepared: Users have identified simple workarounds, by establishing Apple IDs outside the U.S., using side load applications for Android, and, if it comes to this, planning to resort to virtual private networks to change their IP location—just like users in China have long had to do to access apps banned within the mainland. Some of these workarounds expose users to further risk, working through a digital gray market where privacy and user security are not necessarily a top priority.
WeChat has both connected families and torn them apart. Indeed, from a security and user privacy perspective, WeChat has long deserved significant international scrutiny. The app has served as a central tool for one of the world’s most effective and innovative practitioners of censorship and repression. In addition to employing human and A.I. censors for content both within and without mainland China, the app is a key part of how Chinese authorities enact relational repression. The government uses WeChat to silence critics outside of China by identifying and targeting friends and family members still within the country. Authorities have also stifled dissent by banning countless social media and messaging app alternatives, which creates a communications bottleneck around WeChat: If you don’t use it, you can’t communicate. The Chinese government enforces such widespread bans by requiring hardware routers, internet, and cellphone providers to reroute and manipulate the domain name system, the phonebook of the internet, alongside intrusive techniques like deep packet sniffing to prevent circumvention. To truly ban WeChat, the U.S. would likely have to implement similar restrictions—which would have deep consequences for digital rights.
Meanwhile, bans on WeChat and TikTok would do little to actually protect U.S. users’ data privacy or ensure national security. If the concern were simply about the potential for the Chinese government to access Americans’ data, then the government would have also blocked other popular applications, like Ant Financial’s Alipay and Tencent’s other messaging app, QQ. Chinese companies can continue purchasing customer data, even fertility data, from American tech companies without oversight, and devices such as Xiaomi phones, which have a history of unsavory data collection practices, continue to be sold on sites like Amazon. Even more incoherently, Tencent will still be allowed to operate the now-rebranded WeCom, a business application that allows users to port all their contacts and connect directly in group chats with WeChat users.
Even better, the U.S. might have implemented policies to protect users from all invasive apps, regardless of where their companies are based. It might have regulated the alarming ways that U.S. police use social media and new hardware technology to surveil activists—practices led by China nearly a decade ago. Instead, we are seeing the use of foreign policy to justify political repression and control domestically, reinforcing American corporate interests.
Weeks before the WeChat ban was announced, rumors that something along those lines might happen began spreading, spurring frantic flurries of messages between people in the U.S. and people in China.
Having lived under authoritarian regimes, we know how power is consolidated—through nebulous threats, vague dictums, and the steady erosion of rights. Like many of the Trump administration’s bans and sanctions, the disregard for democratic processes has been both unsurprising and ineffective. A clumsy piece of legislation pushed through Congress in 2019 banned Hikvision and Dahua, two Chinese companies with ties to human rights violations, from operating in U.S. government contracts. Yet these two companies still operate in the U.S. private and public sectors today—supplying Amazon warehouses with employee temperature checking cameras, and continuing to be used by U.S. government agencies.
Holding platforms like WeChat to account should not come at the expense of user rights and due processes, nor should it seek to replicate the very blanket bans on internet services that authoritarian nations enact. As U.S. Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler wrote in the preliminary injunction that granted WeChat a brief reprieve, the national security concerns are real, but so are questions regarding First Amendment rights: “[T]here are obvious alternatives to a complete ban, such as barring WeChat from government devices, as Australia has done, or taking other steps to address data security.”
The plaintiffs in the WeChat case have argued that the ban would violate their First Amendment rights. This is part of a much bigger ongoing test of the First Amendment and international human rights norms around free expression as they apply to the internet and social media. The Trump administration’s cruel, ad-hoc approach of banning apps, one by one, is doomed to fail at both this test and the White House’s purported national security goals. The only way to pass it is to make a commitment to user data regulation and security that truly respects processes, rights, and standards, no matter whether an app or piece of technology comes from San Francisco, Shenzhen, or anywhere else.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.