The United States Had Every Right To Force a TikTok Sale

China’s violations of human rights and the basic norms of internet freedom are blatant and obvious. This month, with little fanfare, the country ordered Apple to block downloads of WhatsApp, Threads and Signal within its borders. It already prevents citizens from connecting to dozens of other providers of information, including this newspaper and Wikipedia, and for years, it has aggressively surveilled journalists and dissidents.

That abysmal track record gives the United States every right to demand that TikTok find a different owner — one not subject to the control of the Chinese state.

Last week, President Biden signed a law that did just that. TikTok’s current owner, ByteDance, has long emphasized that global institutional investors — such as the Carlyle Group, General Atlantic and Susquehanna International Group — have a 60 percent stake in the company, but it is still, at its core, a Chinese company, with headquarters in Beijing and subject in multiple ways to the direction of Chinese officials. This new law, which gives TikTok roughly 270 days to find a new owner, is designed to change that. But more fundamentally, it sends a message to the world: You cannot disregard basic internet norms and expect to be treated just like any other country.

Infrastructure is destiny, and on some level, the continuing struggle to control the internet is a struggle for the future of civilization. We are already very far from the vision of the internet, laid out in the 1970s and 1990s, of a network that would bring the nations and peoples of the world together in harmony. That may have been too idealistic, even then — but today, we can still draw a line at mass surveillance and censorship, and make it clear that nations who break norms are not entitled to full access to American markets.

Some have argued that TikTok should be left alone to preserve a free and open internet. They argue that to treat China differently would fragment the network. That gets things backward. China, Russia, Iran and other nations have long since broken from any “one internet” vision with their blocking, shutdowns and censorship. This month, American policymakers demonstrated that doing so has consequences.

That China is in violation of established norms is not in question. In 2022, more than 60 nations signed a “Declaration for the Future of the Internet” enumerating basic online principles that all nations should respect (China, Russia and other nations declined to sign): no shutdowns around elections, no surveillance of political opponents, no bans on lawful content. While no country is perfect, only nations like Russia, Iran and Cuba can rival China in their flagrant violations of these principles. Freedom House, which measures internet freedoms, rates Iceland at 94 out of 100, Russia at 21 and China at 9. That alone is grounds to disqualify it from controlling what is now one the world’s most important social media networks.

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