IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Welcome to the 'splinternet': Trump adds to fractures in worldwide web

The U.S. has mostly opposed the balkanization of the internet into global factions, but experts said two new executive orders may help change that.
A Tencent sign is seen at the World Internet Conference (WIC) in Wuzhen
A Tencent sign at the World Internet Conference in China in 2019.Aly Song / Reuters file

It may not be possible to have a worldwide internet, after all.

Tech policy experts said Friday that the idea of the internet as one global, unifying phenomenon was at stake after President Donald Trump took the sudden step of announcing bans on two popular Chinese apps, TikTok and WeChat, calling them security risks.

It was an extreme example of Trump using security powers to stifle the spread of technology, and people who study how the internet is governed said his orders will only worsen an international breakup along regional and political lines that’s already years in the making.

“This is definitely the splinternet,” said Dipayan Ghosh, a former Obama White House tech adviser who now directs the Digital Platforms & Democracy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School.

“We’re seeing increasing division between the U.S., Russia, China and the E.U., and clear factions are starting to develop. I don’t think it’s helpful, coming especially as it is from a politicized administration,” he said.

Trump’s action took the form of two executive orders. The one about TikTok in effect formalized a deadline for Microsoft’s ongoing talks to buy much of that company. The other order said the U.S. would ban “any transaction that is related to WeChat by any person” starting in 45 days.

The orders were met by a mix of disgust and confusion from experts who described them as half-baked and tainted by Trump’s strategy of attacking China going into the presidential election.

The ban on WeChat came as a particular surprise. Although TikTok had been a target of White House criticisms for weeks, there had been little warning that a ban on WeChat was in consideration.

“It’s the policy equivalent of a jingoistic temper tantrum,” said Ronald Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto.

Although WeChat has been the subject of security concerns, including in studies by the Citizen Lab, Deibert said that going so far as to ban it in the U.S. “will produce chaos for internet users and businesses, invite retaliation from China and present a blueprint for authoritarians the world over to emulate.”

One of the only public hints about a WeChat ban came last month, when Trump adviser Peter Navarro said briefly in an interview to “expect strong action” on TikTok and WeChat.

Matt Perault, director of Duke University’s Center on Science & Technology Policy, said there’s little evidence to justify Trump’s allegation that TikTok and WeChat are serious national security risks, and that consumers will suffer from the bans.

“The greatest threat to the global free flow of information no longer comes from the Great Chinese Firewall, but from America’s Grand Cyber Canyon,” Perault said.

To be sure, while the internet was imagined in the 1960s as a “galactic network,” it has never been truly global.

For many years the internet was generally available only to wealthy, mostly white parts of the planet. Only a few companies such as Facebook and Google can claim to be ubiquitous platforms, and even they are not global because their services are mostly unavailable in the world’s most populous country. In that sense, Trump’s action could be a taste of China’s own strategy applied back to them.

But experts said that until now, the U.S. government had largely been a force that opposed the balkanization of the internet.

Trump has changed that, they said, by acting from intentions that aren’t about fighting for a better internet. Last month, Trump spoke about banning Chinese apps such as TikTok as retaliation for China’s role in the coronavirus pandemic.

“There are ways to build a robust, long-term strategy for securing the digital supply chain, which is a very complicated issue, but that is not what is happening here,” said Justin Sherman, a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative.

WeChat has drawn longstanding security complaints from security researchers. In one study published last year and cited by Trump, more than 300 million WeChat private messages were found exposed online. WeChat users also said they believed China censored early discussions about the coronavirus this year.

Australia and India are among the countries that have already begun to scrutinize and restrict WeChat.

Within China, WeChat is ubiquitous, serving as an all-in-one app that’s important for making payments and even for displaying someone’s coronavirus test results.

In the short term, the WeChat order could upend people’s ability to communicate with friends and relatives who are in China or who are part of the global Chinese diaspora. Outside China, WeChat is used primarily for messaging but also has some social media functions similar to Facebook.

“The people who are really hurt are people who have older relatives in China,” said Rui Ma, the host of the "Tech Buzz China" podcast and a tech investor in the Bay Area.

Ma said many WeChat users in the U.S. will simply switch messaging apps, and that some have already begun to do so, but she added, “I think it’s going to be very hard for their parents to figure out how to use a new program.”

A ban within the U.S. would also likely have business implications for any American companies that try to market in China or otherwise contact people there, though it was too early to tell exactly, said Doug Barry, a spokesman for the U.S.-China Business Council.

The ACLU warned that if the order results in a broad restriction on communication, it would violate free speech guarantees.

“This is another abuse of emergency powers under the broad guise of national security,” Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, said in a statement.

“It would violate the First Amendment rights of users in the United States by subjecting them to civil and possibly criminal penalties for communicating with family members, friends, or business contacts,” she said.

Access Now, a nonprofit that advocates for freedom online, said the orders from Trump mirror censorship tactics in other nations that the U.S. government has decried for more than a decade.

“Arbitrary and disproportionate blocking, based on geopolitical escalation, spurs a race to the bottom, to a world of splintered internets with less cybersecurity and more exposure to overbearing nationalism,” the group said in a statement.

Kevin Collier contributed.