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Politics

Ron Wyden thinks we’re going about TikTok and China policy all wrong

He agrees that TikTok is a potential threat but says the "Trump approach is totally ineffective."

Ron Wyden

"My view is China is trying to export its censorship model around the world, which is totally unacceptable, and the Trump approach is totally ineffective because standing up to China on trade and tech issues can't be a solo mission for the United States," says Sen. Ron Wyden.

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Sen. Ron Wyden worries about TikTok. He thinks it's wrong for Chinese-owned apps to operate in the U.S. while social networks like Facebook and YouTube are blocked in China. He's alarmed by the idea that the Chinese government could censor the content being consumed by millions of Americans.

But that doesn't mean he supports President Trump's recent TikTok and WeChat executive orders. Instead, right now, he's thinking a lot about the larger picture: He wants the U.S. to prevent China from "owning the future of the internet" by banding together with the U.S. allies that Trump has spurned.

Protocol talked to Wyden this week about Chinese tech on U.S. soil, the future of the controversial EARN IT Act, and what the end of the U.S.-EU Privacy Shield means for China.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What do you make of President Trump's executive order banning TikTok from the U.S. if it is not sold to an American company within the next 45 days?

I am a lawyer in name only, but I do know that Donald Trump is approaching this issue just like he does everything else: He's looking at what the orders can do to help himself, and he couldn't care less about what's legal and what's not. He's going about this as ham-handed as you possibly could.

Right now, it's looking like TikTok probably will be sold to an American company. Do you think that TikTok is an imminent national security threat, and what do you think of selling to an American company to ease that?

Let's talk about TikTok, and then let's talk about the relationship between China and the United States. First, the two issues I've always been concerned about with respect to TikTok is, one, it's fundamentally unfair from a competition standpoint for China to restrict access to U.S. social media companies [while] at the same time Chinese-owned apps are allowed to operate here. I think that's a recipe for China owning the future of the internet. Second, there are obviously growing numbers of stories about how TikTok censors voices that are critical of the Chinese government. Despite its promises, because TikTok is Chinese-owned, there will always be the potential for the Chinese government to influence American public opinion. Those are the two concerns I have with respect to Tiktok in addition to the privacy concerns.

Then let me talk to you about the relationship between China and the United States on technology. I, as the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee, have been outspoken in terms of fighting China's trade cheating, and the "Great Firewall," for example, makes a mockery of the real promise of the net, which is the ability to share ideas and information across national borders. My view is China is trying to export its censorship model around the world, which is totally unacceptable, and the Trump approach is totally ineffective because standing up to China on trade and tech issues can't be a solo mission for the United States. And what I hope will change in 2021 is instead of picking fights with our allies in Europe, Canada and Japan, we need to join them [in] dealing with, for example, taking on China. We need a global strategy to push back.

Some people have said they're concerned that if we ban TikTok in the U.S., or start to go down that route, we're creating a bifurcated internet. We're following the same path of censorship that China was going down, where the government has so much power over what we have on our phones. Do you share that concern, that we're reaching a point where there will be multiple internets rather than one?

I think right out in front is this issue of China owning the future of the internet, and if China gets to restrict access to U.S. social media companies and Chinese-owned apps can freely operate here, China's going to own the future of the internet and that will be detrimental to the country's interest by any calculation.

Is TikTok being bought by an American company the right path forward?

There's a process for the government that evaluates security risks when it comes to foreign-owned companies. It's not Donald Trump's job or my job to basically throw ourselves into this and politicize the entire decision. I've told you about my concerns with TikTok.

Separately, Trump signed an executive order that will likely result in the banning of Tencent's WeChat in the U.S. Are you similarly concerned about WeChat?

I'm not sure if it's exactly the same. Let me stick with outlining my views on TikTok, because I think that is a central question with respect to competitiveness, it bleeds into the executive orders, it bleeds into the bigger relationship between China and the U.S., and then if you want to talk about the safety of Chinese tech products.

I'm not going to talk about any specifics with respect to companies. But let's talk about Chinese tech products with respect to Americans. To me, I think there are real safety concerns when you put Americans' data within the reach of the Chinese government. The Justice Department has already said that China was behind the hacks of OPM, Marriott, Equifax — all that data combined gives the Chinese government and its intelligence agencies the ability to identify an array of ways to blackmail U.S. government officials and others with access to national security data. We've now got to be mindful of other sources of data, and if China gets its hands on it, either through hacking deals or deals or consumers or government agencies using Chinese tech products, it could supercharge Chinese espionage.

Another way to put it would be: While the videos shared through TikTok seem innocuous often, the data collected from smartphones can be used to target hacking campaigns. That's China from our standpoint right now.

What's your response to people who say that sweeping anti-China policy is more about nationalism, and even xenophobia, than genuine national security concerns?

I'm on the Intelligence Committee, so I'm not going to say too much with respect to that. I think fundamental flaws with respect to the China policy is our failure to mobilize a coalition with our allies on this basket of critical issues. Europe, Canada, Japan — Trump is out having certain fights with these countries when what we really need to deal with this unique relationship with China is a global strategy to pursue our interests. That is to me the dominant issue in the alternative approaches to dealing with China.

Donald Trump, for reasons that sometimes I can't even begin to divine, has made this judgment, in executive orders and alike, that he doesn't really care whether they're legal or not, he is going to be ham handed. He is going to say, "I am going to fight to stop China, and I and I alone can win that fight." And I fundamentally think that's a flawed approach, and I think writing off the allies the way he has with this go-it-alone strategy is detrimental to advancing America's interests in both economic and national security.

You announced that you're planning to put a hold on the EARN IT Act. What kind of conversations have you had with Senate leadership about the EARN IT Act?

I think everybody knows my views enough to know we've got our hands full with the coronavirus package, [which] as ranking Democrat on Finance, I've been lead on $600 extra [unemployment benefits] per week, I wrote that measure on Medicaid help for state and local.

I've been very clear that I think EARN IT, and the new version of EARN IT, would be a major setback. I don't think it would do anything to stop the monsters who prey on children and share child sexual abuse material. What it will do is create a lot of litigation, let an individual state regulate the entire internet, and drive the monsters even further to the dark web.

And what happened with SESTA/FOSTA, you might recall, all these politicians said, "Oh we're going to stop sex trafficking, mission accomplished!" SESTA didn't stop sex trafficking. All the sponsors of SESTA/FOSTA said, "We're going to get Backpage because of SESTA/FOSTA." Backpage was taken down before SESTA/FOSTA even went into effect. The main result of SESTA/FOSTA is that a few websites were taken down, violence against sex workers has skyrocketed, and a lot of monsters decided they're going to go where search engines can't go: to the dark web.

And the irony is that there's a bill that would actually help, and that's my legislation to devote $5 billion in ensuring that NCMEC [National Center for Missing and Exploited Children] and federal agencies have the tools they need for prosecutors and counselors, to deal with the millions of reports they get from tech companies right now. EARN IT, I think, also is a backdoor approach to weakening strong encryption, and weakening strong encryption will make this country less safe rather than more safe. And it's a big gift to pedophiles, for example.

What is the future of the EARN IT Act? Do you see it passing both chambers and being signed into law, albeit in some altered form?

I think we continue to have more individuals look at this and describe what a flawed bill it is. The calendar between now and the end of the year is short.

If Lindsey Graham and Bill Barr and others who are interested in banning strong encryption have their way in letting states find ways to regulate the internet and target encryption, I think people who say "let's work on that" rather than fixing unemployment insurance so people can make rent and buy groceries, get more personal protective equipment to frontline workers, stop evictions — I think legislators who say "I support this turkey of a bill" rather than those priorities, testing and the like … I would like Yogi Berra's line: "I don't make predictions, especially about the future." But I'll tell you I think that opposition is going to continue to grow as people see what a flawed policy this is.

Do you feel confident that the U.S. and EU can come to a more privacy-protective framework to replace the U.S.-EU Privacy Shield, now that it has been knocked down?

Let's make sure everybody knows what the Schrems II case said. They said it isn't safe for Europeans to entrust their data to American companies because Europeans aren't protected by U.S. privacy laws. My view is it has the potential to cause significant harm to the U.S. economy and result in the loss of good well-paying jobs, including in my hometown of Portland.

The global success of American tech companies — Google, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook — and the significant economic benefits to bring to America, depends on foreign customers trusting them. Without it, we lose tax revenue. It's past time to recognize the words of the founding fathers, "All men are created equal." We regularly have to take steps to defend the freedoms of Americans from the European government. I consider it a national embarrassment when the Europeans are taking steps to protect their citizens [from the U.S.]. For me, what it really comes down to is we work through these relationships, which again I believe will be a real opportunity in 2021 with a new administration.

If you say the reality is there's a race between the United States and China to decide the future of the internet, for America to win, it's important to have the Europeans on our side — as I said, as many allies as possible to advance America's interests in conjunction with the most leverage that we can bring to bear.

Donald Trump would say, "Why do we need to work with Europe or Japan or somewhere?" You need to work with allies because it gives you more leverage. He somehow thinks it's a zero-sum game. We have more leverage when we have allies on our side. Apropos of the Privacy Shield, if you say the bottom line is you look at where the world is headed with respect to the internet and to a great extent it comes down to a race between China to drive that future, in my view, to drive it you need Europeans on our side as it relates to the U.S.-EU Privacy Shield. The biggest, broadest coalition you can get with respect to the overall relationship is how we can have influence with respect to China on economic and national security on the internet.

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