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Show me who bans TikTok and I'll show you your (future) allies

Show me who bans TikTok and I'll show you your (future) allies
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The TikTok/U.S. saga has been a whirlwind. With the Trump administration’s app store ban delayed, today’s plan sees Oracle and Walmart taking stakes in a new company, TikTok Global, for users outside of China.

With so much up in the air, it’s a perfect opportunity to step back and ask what this “app nationalism” means for global cooperation and competition.

Restrictions on the web are not the sole domain of oppressive regimes. The lumbering bureaucracies of Europe have — in the name of consumer protection — restricted access to websites that failed to comply with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). But, until this kerfuffle, the U.S. has been less restrictive.

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The implications of the TikTok and WeChat restrictions could be far greater than most realize. Insofar as they signal a shift to a less procedural, less predictable blocking regime, these restrictions could be a harbinger of a broader shift in U.S. relations not just with China, but with the world — including on trade, defense and principles such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Our research suggests that blocking web content is not only a matter of free speech, but also has implications for free trade.

For the better part of a year, our team at the Daylight Security Research Lab (part of the UC Berkeley Center for Long-Term Cybersecurity) has conducted research on internet fragmentation, the degree to which internets in different countries are similar to one another. Our analysis uses different layers of the internet "stack" — the technologies that, cobbled together, comprise the internet — to quantify, for example, how similar France's internet is to that of Germany, Canada, Thailand or other countries. We use these country-to-country comparisons to produce a network, with each country related to every other in a web of internet similarities.

This research has revealed that there is no single internet, but clusters of interoperable internets. Currently, the U.S. freely interoperates with Canada, Australia and New Zealand. While GDPR adds some friction, EU countries cluster with the U.S. almost as tightly as they do with one another.

Meanwhile, some countries go their own way. Contrary to popular narratives about China "exporting" its internet, China has a unique pattern of content blocking, focusing on blocking foreign competitors and particular political issues. So does India, which blocks its own set of sensitive political content, especially around Indian religious issues.

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These clusters of interoperable internets — and those that stand apart from the world — reveal political realities and on-the-ground tensions. In fact, they correlate with other facets of international relations: military alliances, trade agreements and even political principles such as freedom of speech.

We recently correlated website blocking patterns within and outside of various formal groups and alliances, such as the EU and NATO. Our goal was to identify whether, for example, members of NATO are more likely to have similar website blocking (effectively, a similar internet experience) than those outside such groups.

They do. European Union countries are significantly more similar to one another than they are to non-EU countries. The same is true of NATO countries.

Our findings indicate that website blocking patterns can reveal information about military and trade relations. The two move together. This indicates that, if website blocking patterns change, we can expect to see changes in trade and military relations as well.

In other words, changes in website blocking patterns could provide a leading indicator of changes in other domains.

Consider a scenario in which the U.S. blocks TikTok while the EU refuses to follow suit, allowing TikTok to continue operating as a Chinese company. Our model would predict that the EU would be more likely to enter into a trade agreement with China than would the U.S. The EU would be more likely to cooperate with China on military issues.

Now, imagine a separate entity — perhaps the newly-proposed TikTok Global — controlling users outside of China. That could further segment China apart from the global internet, and the global community. But only if allies agree to use TikTok Global’s app rather than the Chinese ByteDance’s version.

Here’s another correlation we found: Countries with similar internet blocking patterns are also more similar in measures of their freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

That should sound alarms.

If the U.S. deviates from its allies on internet blocking patterns, it may also deviate on freedom of expression — an area in which the U.S. has already been slipping, as President TrumpDonald John TrumpVenezuela judge orders prison time for 6 American oil executives Trump says he'll leave White House if Biden declared winner of Electoral College The Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation MORE’s relentless criticism of the media has made clear.

The fact that internet blocking is linked to international relations should not be a surprise. The internet is, and has always been, both a product and a driver of political realities on the ground. State competition and cooperation play out on the internet. As internet blocking policies change — as they may be about to in the U.S., dramatically — we are left with a leading indicator, a harbinger of possible changes in the international arena.

If the U.S. does manage to block, or even silo off TikTok or WeChat, we don't know exactly what will come next. But we can start to make some guesses. And those guesses point toward not just a more fractured internet, but also a more fractured and non-polar international order.

Nick Merrill directs the Daylight Lab at the UC Berkeley Center for Long-Term Cybersecurity, which produces tools for understanding and addressing critical security issues.