Not just TikTok, but the new boundaries have been running on the web for years. From China's "Digital Great Wall" to Russia's sovereign internet to the dispute between the US and the EU over the use of personal data, the challenge of the superpowers extends to the online world and impacts us all.

China-US Cold War Over Social Media
China VS USA

From an adolescent hobby to a potential "threat," the fate of TikTok, the current social network, is intriguing. Yet, few insiders were shocked by the European Commission's action, which only a few days earlier asked its staff to deactivate the app from all corporate phones in order to avoid data leaks and tighten IT security. The FBI had previously raised the alarm in November, and the decision came after Canada and the United States had banned the Chinese program from any electronic devices issued to government organizations.

Yet, the case immediately became the topic of conversation. Indeed, we are discussing the social network today most popular among young people and the most downloaded app internationally in the previous year. And this is exactly what the Beijing authorities have stated, in a provocative fashion through their Foreign Ministry: "as the world's greatest power, they are so terrified of an app that young people adore". The difficulty is that the Chinese government appears to like it as well, for obvious reasons.

TikTok and the Communist Party of China

The app of the moment, also known as Douyin in China, debuted in 2016 under the name The capacity to rebuild the social language, focusing on very short films that are highly accessible by a user fleeing text-based social media, has made it the most adored social network by the very young and surely one of the most utilized in the world, with over two billion users, in only a few years. Yet, the social network is controlled by ByteDance, a multinational technology corporation headquartered in Beijing, and it is far from free of interference. According to Punto Digitale, the Communist Party of China might influence the app using two easy processes.

First through China's National Intelligence Law which requires all citizens and organizations to participate in domestic and foreign intelligence activities. Secondly, by directly controlling a considerable share of Beijing Douyin Information Service, the ByteDance subsidiary which manages its activities in China.

Western concerns are mostly two: the first is that China utilizes social media to acquire personal data and exploit it for political objectives, and the second is that it organizes misinformation, censorship, and propaganda efforts (also using these data). Grounds that potentially lead to more broad restrictions in the future were also extended to the general public. So far, India is the only large country in the world that has prohibited TikTok and numerous Chinese applications. A ruling that has sparked several debates on the limits of free expression. Another option would be to have limited versions of the Chinese software available in the West.

In this regard, TikTok has already begun a commercial collaboration with Oracle to safeguard the integrity of data belonging to US people. It's too early to tell what's going on, but it appears like something is changing swiftly. Furthermore, as Xi Jinping has stated multiple times, control of big data in the new millennium is critical for political and economic hegemony. And the new Iron Curtain between East and West has been in place for some years.

The new digital Iron Curtains

It's been dubbed the "Great Firewall," and it's evocative of China's more renowned Great Wall. We're talking about a collection of legal and technological tools that the Chinese Communist Party has traditionally employed to control the internet in China. So what exactly is a firewall? Following the description of Cisco, one of the major businesses in the networking industry, we can describe as follows: "a device, software or hardware, for network security that allows incoming and outgoing traffic to be monitored using a preset set of security to allow or block events".

To put it simply, the Chinese government has devised a number of strategies to conceal from its population a wide range of "uncomfortable" and "hostile" Western websites. In China, access to social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, as well as many Western news sites, blogging platforms such as Wordpress, and search engines like as Google and Yahoo, is not accessible in this manner. China has responded to these "barriers" by creating sites, applications, and tools that try to emulate, and occasionally compete with, Western big tech. Instead of Google, there is the search engine Baidu, which has about 700 million users. In terms of social networks (and messaging), Weibo and WeChat are widely used.

Beyond the constraints on Western news and personal freedom, the Beijing government has been pursuing an autarkic road to the web for decades, capable of building global hegemony rather than suffering from it. The TikTok instance is only the most recent example of a long-running tactic. Furthermore, to demonstrate that, despite our valid worries about fundamental freedoms, the strategy is working, consider the story of Amazon, which was forced to recede due to the dominance of Chinese e-commerce behemoth AliBaba.

In Moscow, a fairly specular dynamic is also reported. Since the outbreak of the war with Ukraine, Russian social media has been restricted. Yet, even until February of last year, Western big technology did not wield the same clout as they do here. For example, Vkontakte is by far the most popular social network in Russia, while Yandex easily substitutes Google for many users. Immediately before the commencement of conflict, the US search engine was ordered, among other things, to delete the URLs of thousands of "forbidden" sites, which could be accessed via VPN.
Since 2012, there has been a list of websites and online publications that are not acceptable to the government in Russia, and since 2017, tools such as proxies, VPNs and Tor are effectively restricted in the Russian Federation.

There is no formal prohibition on using a VPN (virtual private network), however it cannot be utilized to access sites blocked by censorship. Yet, the spread of these weapons since the start of the war has been obvious. Putin's idea of a "sovereign" internet existed even before the commencement of the conflict. It's no surprise that one of 2019's fundamental laws is called that. It requires telecommunications providers, among other things, to install state-owned equipment at traffic exchange points to analyze and filter traffic both within the nation and at the Russian border. The idea is to build a wall that hermetically separates the country, as is done in China.

Yet, the issue of personal data use is causing friction not just between the West and the rest of the world, but also between allies such as the EU and the United States. In 2013, Edward Snowden addressed the issue of the United States' indiscriminate access to the personal data (also) of Europeans. A discovery that sparked a multi-year feud between the two sides of the Atlantic. Max Shrems, an Austrian law student, fought the battle. After getting evidence of the data acquired on his behalf by Facebook, and after the NSA's Prism bulk surveillance operation disclosed the personal data of thousands of Internet users, the young activist approached the Irish data protection authorities.

Facebook's European headquarters are in Dublin. The aim sought to ban the transfer of personal data from Ireland to the United States, which was deemed to have inadequate security requirements. The Irish court denied the motion, but Shrems would not give up and appealed to the European Union Court of Justice in the second degree, which found him correct.

The sentencing resulted in the implementation of a new agreement with the United States, the "EU-US Privacy Shield," in 2016. But, the new agreement enraged the campaigners right away. What about the prosecution? Once again, there appeared to be no constraints on US authorities' acquisition of indiscriminate information on European individuals. And the Court of Justice of the Union confirmed him correct once more: the agreement was found unconstitutional in 2020.

A new agreement draft is presently being discussed, and the Commission has been working on the subject since December of last year. The important issues, however, appear to be the same: the commitment of American authorities to limit access to personal data of EU people and conformity with the European GDPR, i.e. EU personal data law that differs markedly from that of the United States. Discussions lasted throughout spring, and a new plan should be ready soon.

The network has decisively lost the air of naive purity that marked it at the turn of the century, as the new walls of the new cold war run across what was previously considered a zone without governments and boundaries. "Don't be wicked," a Google claim from the early 2000s said. To cite a great Italian scholar, we have had twenty years to recognize that technological advancement and progress are not the same thing. And that even in the frantic digital era, the old discipline that has regulated our collective existence for millennia: politics, be handled.

The author Daniele Tempera is an Italian journalist.
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