Trump Admin Starts Construction on Chinese-Style Great Firewall

Trump Admin Starts Construction on Chinese-Style Great Firewall
Image: Greg Nash, Getty Images

After attempting to rewrite the rules of the internet and poach TikTok, the Trump regime has concocted a bonkers plan to build a digital wall around the U.S. internet. This plan has it all: dictatorship, nationalism, paranoia, walls, bans, trade war, and extra-legal blustering that could pressure companies to do what he wants to get him off their backs.

Free speech issues are sure to come up immediately and perhaps later in court, but here’s the gist of the “Clean Network” plan, published yesterday by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo:

  1. Block “untrusted” Chinese carriers from connecting with U.S. telecom networks in the name of national security. What this means in practice is unclear. We’ve asked the State Department for clarification, but don’t hold your breath. (The first email we sent resulted in an out-of-office response, which led to another email address, which led to a second out-of-office response. So…)
  2. Remove Chinese apps (“untrusted applications”) from U.S. app stores because such apps “threaten our privacy, proliferate viruses, and spread propaganda and disinformation.” Trump has never cared much about weeding out foreign propaganda. And while TikTok, which is owned by Chinese firm ByteDance, is suspected of violating user privacy by giving Americans’ data to Beijing, it’s not been proven. As cybersecurity leader Jay Balan explained to Gizmodo, Apple and Google already enforce security standards before publishing apps, and the cybersecurity industry acts as a watchdog. An app store ban would raise the additional issue of whether the government is stifling app stores’ First Amendment rights by preventing the distribution of software, which, courts have held, is a form of speech.
  3. Here, the national security argument falls apart, so the administration throws in human rights: Apps will have to prevent access to users (not even just Chinese users) of Chinese smartphone manufacturers such as Huawei “to ensure they are not partnering with a human rights abuser.”
  4. Preventing U.S. citizens’ data from being stored on “cloud-based systems accessible to our foreign adversaries through companies such as Alibaba, Baidu, and Tencent.”
  5. And, adding a layer of nefariousness to the mix, ensuring that “undersea cables connecting our country to the global internet are not subverted for intelligence gathering by the PRC [the People’s Republic of China] at hyper scale” This seems like a thing that is already happening, but we’ve asked the State Department what’s actually changed.

In other words, they’ve run with the TikTok “ban” momentum and are attempting to essentially strangle Chinese tech companies and secure another distracting victory in Trump’s trade war, and as a result take first steps to silo the U.S. internet from the outside world, not unlike a certain other regime.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a detailed explainer on why Trump likely can’t ban TikTok, at least not without legal warfare over constitutional rights. As Jeffrey Douglas, chairman emeritus of the nonprofit the First Amendment Lawyers Association, explained to Gizmodo, a ban (whatever it looks like) would require a high burden of proof to show that TikTok does indeed pose a national security threat — and even then, they would be unlikely to limit communications to the extent of a full-scale ban.

Empty threats seem to be just as effective for Trump’s purposes anyway; as EFF’s deputy executive director, Kurt Opsahl, told Gizmodo earlier this week, simply applying constant pressure on TikTok reduces the company’s estimated value. The administration sure doesn’t care about privacy or speech on principle.