By: Lisa Hoover
China has been receiving media attention for free speech issues again this month, with the focus on Hong Kong this time. Books considered pro-democracy have been removed from public libraries in Hong Kong following the passage of a new security law, according to the BBC. China raises free speech and intellectual freedom issues fairly regularly — in fact, I wrote about China just over a year ago when a professor was suspended for speaking out against the Chinese president.
At the same time, President Trump has been considering a ban on TikTok and other Chinese apps. I find these two issues interesting to consider together.
The removal of books from the public libraries raises pretty obvious concerns, especially given that it is happening in Hong Kong, a “special administrative region” of China that maintains a fairly high level of independence from mainland China. China has said the law, which targets “inciting hatred of China’s central government and Hong Kong’s regional government,” is necessary to stop “mass pro-democracy protests seen in Hong Kong” in 2019 that at times led to violence. So, essentially, China is doubling down on suppressing speech by censoring books (speech) to prevent protests (speech). There are also concerns that the law may require internet providers to hand over data to police if requested, which implicates yet more speech.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration is considering a ban on the social media site TikTok, which has already been banned in India and is prohibited from use by US Army and Navy service members on government-issued phones. The primary concern appears to be that the app could be used by the Chinese government to spy on/gather data on US citizens. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said that users are “putting private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.” Trump has also stated that a TikTok ban would be a punishment for China’s response to the coronavirus, according to CNET. CNET also implied the ban might be in reaction to the use of TikTok to reserve tickets to a Trump rally that then went unused.
Setting aside the issue of whether the administration can even ban a specific app, I find this proposed solution to the issue troubling. A full-on ban, of course, arguably raises free speech concerns. Beyond that, as librarians well know, all apps (and indeed most technology) raise privacy concerns. These are certainly real, serious concerns that we should be doing more about. But is a ban the right way to do that? I don’t profess to know, but I think we should carefully consider the implications and other alternatives. What about changing our privacy laws, similar to Europe’s recent General Data Protection Regulation? And, of course, advocating for better education of our citizenry.
As I have discussed before, librarians have an important role to play in educating our patrons about these issues. We have the know-how, and often the opportunity, to teach patrons about how their data is being used and shared. When we teach workshops on technology we should always discuss potential privacy concerns. We should use our outreach as a way to spread awareness. And, of course, we should always keep in mind potential privacy problems with our own services.
But ultimately, in my opinion, we should educate patrons yet let them make their own choices — and this also goes for American citizens more generally. A ban seems a bit like using a meat cleaver where a scalpel might be more appropriate.
I’m also troubled by the potential message a TikTok ban sends; we want to encourage China to be more protective of and open to free speech, especially in light of the troubling shift toward censorship in Hong Kong. Can we really do that if we are banning their apps? By banning their apps, are we taking steps in that same direction?
Careful reflection and decision making is needed in this area, not just with regard to TikTok and apps, but with regard to our technological privacy more generally. I would argue that we need to address these issues more broadly, yet also with more finesse.
BBC News (2020) Hong Kong security law: Pro-democracy books pulled from libraries. BBC News. Retrieved July 17, 2020 from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-53296810
Cox, K. (2020) Trump administration “looking into” ban on TikTok, other Chinese apps. ARS Technica. Retrieved July 17, 2020 from https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2020/07/trump-administration-looking-into-ban-on-tiktok-other-chinese-apps/
Wong, Q. & Hautala, L. (2020) Trump eyes a TikTok ban: Everything you need to know. CNET. Retrieved July 17, 2020 from https://www.cnet.com/news/trump-eyes-a-tiktok-ban-everything-you-need-to-know/
Lisa Hoover is a Public Services Librarian at Clarkson University and an Adjunct Professor in criminal justice at SUNY Canton. In addition to her MLS, Lisa holds a JD and an MA in political science. She began her career as an editor and then manager for a local news organization, adjunct teaching in her “spare time.” She teaches courses in criminal procedure, criminal law and constitutional law. She is passionate about 1st Amendment issues. She recently began her career as a librarian, starting at Clarkson University in June 2017 teaching information literacy sessions and offering reference services. Lisa and her husband Lee live in Norwood, New York with their cats Hercules, Pandora and Nyx and pug-mix Alexstrasza (Alex). Find her on Twitter @LisaHoover01.