TikTok and the end of an open internet

The internet was originally ARPA Net, a cluster of computers connecting universities so scientists could share research papers. Over the years, it transformed into the center of how humans live their lives. Everything from booking flight tickets, to hotel reservations, to hailing a cab was done online. It also became a social place with the rise of Facebook, Twitter, SnapChat and other networks. Since people spend a lot of their lives online, it also became a medium of influence. The greatest weapon is not the nuke, it is information. You can weaponize information and deliver it straight to a population through a smartphone that each citizen is holding. It is not surprising that the internet and social media apps became a political debate issue and started attracting government regulation and scrutiny. But this could be the beginning of the end of an open internet.

This began with a company in the UK called Cambridge Analytica. They were working on using data to predict and influence human behavior. This can have a lot of applications in areas like advertising where people’s purchase decisions can be influenced. But it also had another application - influencing votes in political elections. Cambridge Analytica started mining user data from Facebook and using it on various elections. Whistleblowers claim they targeted elections in Phillippines, few countries in Africa, UK’s BREXIT vote and the 2016 US elections. Political candidates raise a lot of money for campaigning and are willing to spend it to increase their chances of being elected. This caused panic among countries on the possibility of foreign interference by enemy states.

The next action was controlling the pipeline a.k.a. the social networks where people consume the information. This began a long brainstorming moment for all countries to add laws to govern social media networks both foreign and domestic. China was ahead of the curve. China requires an ICP (Internet Content Provider) license for every website that can be accessed in China. Obtaining the ICP license requires you to be a Chinese citizen, legal resident, or Company registered in China. Or you can find a local agent who acts as a middleman to get you an ICP license for your domain name. Given the velocity at which they are granted, they seem almost automatic (not much vetting) but can be easily revoked when a website is interfering in local affairs and gets the spotlight. 

The United States has a law that grants legal immunity to social networks (content distributors) from lawsuits on the account of harmful / illegal / offensive content from its users. The US is trying to overhaul this law to make its platforms more accountable. But the US is also trying to ban Chinese social media apps (TikTok and possibly WeChat). Other countries like India have already banned apps from China. But the US is the leader of the free world where censorship does not exist. Its main attraction is free and open markets. While a handful of other countries around the world blocked services (UAE blocked FaceTime for instance, where as Turkey blocked Wikipedia), the US was not a regular country. It was considered the place of unrestricted commerce and growth. But that may not be the case for long. Social networks are joining the list of WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) and now internet censorship is becoming a national security concern.

The internet has many applications from communication to shopping to booking travel to sharing scientific research. But one of its applications (social media and news consumption) has threatened its existence as we know it. It will still exist but may never be the same open space that encompassed the entire world.