When President Donald Trump issued a pair of executive orders earlier this month targeting Chinese technology companies, the trendy video app TikTok garnered much of the media attention.
TikTok, owned by China’s ByteDance, has been a hot topic as its use by mostly young people to entertain others has skyrocketed. On the surface, it’s fairly harmless, but lurking in the code, experts say, are intrusive policies that collect and misuse user information. The Trump administration indicates national security may be on the line, allowing the “Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information,” according to the executive order. Trump signaled similar concerns with WeChat, a messaging app owned by Chinese company Tencent. The executive orders are intended to bring about bans starting in September.
The underlying fear appears to be that China’s ruling party is collecting American information – and not as much that data is being collected by an app, as that’s a pretty common practice. Experts say these data collection processes may be not any more intrusive than California-based Facebook, for instance.
So, you’ve read the headlines and probably thought, “TikTok ban, not a big loss.” I can see why people would think that for an app that exists largely for entertainment. Other apps perform similar functions.
It’s looking into WeChat where things get interesting from a humanitarian point of view.
I’m told by friends with Chinese spouses in the United States that WeChat is an essential tool for communicating with their relatives residing in China. One of those spouses is unsure how she’d talk with her family if a WeChat ban in the United States were to come to pass.
A recent Reuters report confirms these concerns: The ban would cut off up to 6 million Chinese people living in the United States the ability to communicate with their relatives via WeChat. This is not just a Chinese app. WeChat has an average of 19 million daily active users in the United States, according to the report, citing analytics firm Apptopia. Further, American business relationships with Chinese vendors and manufacturers could face a sudden lack of communication and put a damper on dollars earned right here in the United States.
The Reuters report indicates messaging apps that are popular in the United States, such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, have been blocked in China. Workarounds do exist, such as virtual private networks and international phone calls, though I’m told VPNs can cause headaches and the latter, of course, will incur costs on both ends of the line. WeChat is reportedly so ubiquitous in China that for many residents it’s replaced traditional phone calls and texts. Though there are alternatives, a ban on the use of WeChat for people living in the United States likely would have far-reaching consequences in terms of familial and business connections.
The irony is that with these actions, the United States would be aiding China in its censorship of citizens – even those who are living in America. We don’t want to follow in their footsteps.
The Orwellian nature of Chinese internet censorship has been branded as the Great Firewall of China. Famously, the country has blocked citizens from viewing historical events, such as Tiananmen Square, and the list of blocked websites and apps by the country is long. The freedom to communicate is hit especially hard.
Americans, whether they’re from China or Missouri, shouldn’t have to worry about the government taking away similar rights. While a WeChat ban would impact a subset of Americans, the danger comes from incrementally taking away freedom until it’s too late to act against such actions.
I’m no proponent of the intrusive practices technology firms use with their apps, whether the origins are in China or the United States. But a ban on WeChat shouldn’t be used as a blanket solution. It may cause more harm than good.
Springfield Business Journal Web Editor Geoff Pickle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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