A key plank of Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign was building a Big Wall. Then Covid hit and everything went virtual. So now he's building a Great Big Firewall to take away Americans' freedom to choose which dull chat apps and video dance apps they waste their time on. Heaven forbid a foreign power threatens the national security of the self-declared “Land of the Free” by collecting the top secret dance moves of Americans. Freedom is slavery.
The first bricks in this new Freedom Firewall supposedly take effect today - September 20th. A number of reporters have reached out to me in the past 36 hours asking for my take on how users might be able to get around these blocks. So here it is: Let’s take a look at how this might work and what users might be able do to get around these bans.
In July, Tiktok decided it no longer wanted to service the Hong Kong market. It in essence banned itself from Hong Kong. It removed Tiktok from Hong Kong app stores and disabled existing installations of the app - in effect conducting on device self-censorship - when it detected a sim card issued by a Hong Kong carrier. Getting around this is as easy as downloading the app from a non-Hong Kong app store and putting a non-Hong Kong sim card in your phone. You don’t even need to use the foreign sim card to go online. No VPN needed. Easy.
Trump’s September 18th order targets organizations enabling the distribution of Wechat and Tiktok (“The Apps”). It prevents Apple and Google from distributing The Apps in their app stores. It also prevents US firms from supplying services and infrastructure that might be needed to support the use of The Apps in the USA.
At the very least, this means users who have not already downloaded the apps will likely have to create accounts or change their existing account to a non-US App Store (Instructions: Apple & Google). This typically requires having access to a payment method issued in the new country and can be as easy as buying an iTunes or Play Store gift card for a foreign app store with bitcoin. Apple’s platforms let you download apps from multiple country App Stores, so users could keep their main App Store account in the USA and use their foreign account to download one of The Apps.
It’s unclear at the moment if The Apps themselves will cooperate with the USA and introduce some sort of on-device kill switch that prevents their use on US-networks or with US-issues sim cards. If this happens, buying a second prepaid sim card or eSim from abroad might be an easy work around.
If network providers try to block traffic to servers that are required for the functioning of the apps, users could consider using VPNs to hop over the Trump Firewall and connecting to a VPN server in a place that still has internet app freedom like Canada or Hong Kong.
Ultimately, this whole Tiktok/Wechat situation shows us for the umpteenth time the dangers of centralized app stores and internet infrastructure. While app stores have provided a lot benefits to consumers, they’ve also made it trivial to control what apps users have access to. People with power will not hesitate to take this power by coercive force to use when it suits their political goals (like getting re-elected).
It also sends a clear message to the rest of the world that the USA wants internet hegemony to match its military & cultural hegemony. The success of Wechat and to larger extent Tiktok, is evidence that the USA is no longer the only technology and cultural game in town and it's certain not the only game on the internet.
Finally, Trump's executive order is yet-another-reminder that, like other US import bans and financial sanctions, the real victims are ultimately Americans and American-owned businesses whose rights are taken away or restricted under the guise of being for their own-good. The rest of the world is going to keep on being able to use Wechat and Tiktok just like they can keep traveling to Cuba, North Korea and Iran if they want to. Americans won't even allowed the freedom to chose, even if they want to. Sad.
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