- - Wednesday, August 19, 2020

The Trump administration’s pending ban on Americans doing business with TikTok and WeChat is hardly provocative. However, it casts a light on a threatening antitrust problem: the privatization and manipulation of the public square by technology companies.

China’s Great Firewall blocks Facebook, Twitter and similar U.S. services, and China severely limits the operations of foreign tech giants like Google. This permits ByteDance, Tencent and others to develop social media platforms like TikTok and WeChat and other Internet businesses in a large protected domestic market and still compete in the United States and elsewhere.

WeChat is how the Chinese diaspora communicates with friends and business associates in China. Western companies like Starbucks and Walmart market and obtain payments on WeChat, stealing sales from U.S. tech companies had they been allowed access in China.

Instead of complaining about U.S. efforts to stifle Chinese high tech, President Xi Jinping should be thankful its innovators benefited from a hothouse market for so long to develop internet businesses like Alipay and Alibaba.

The antitrust focus on Big Tech has centered on the data that giants like Amazon, Facebook and Google gather about individual habits to sell ads and market ideas. And the leverage that limiting access to their platforms potentially affords them over present and potential rivals.

Amazon, for example uses what it learns from the activities of businesses selling on Prime to develop competing products. It has entered mundane businesses like disposable diapers, been accused of predatory pricing to drive out competitors and muscling collaboration with smaller businesses and startups to obtain critical competitive information.

We need to be careful. While Amazon had its beginnings in the direct sale of books printed by big publishing houses, it has created a remarkable self- publishing platform through Kindle that permits authors to bypass the cultural screening of those publishers.

App developers can effectively market to iPhone users only through its app store. Apple skims an eye-popping 30% of initial sales for essentially enabling downloads but it controls only 13% of the global smartphone market. Apple and Google’s Android create preferences for their own or third-party products over others.

These practices may need regulation to avoid stifling competition and innovation, but we should act with care. Without these companies, we would still be thumbing flip phones and Blackberries. Without Amazon, the development of Cloud services would have been left to slower moving legacy techs like Microsoft and IBM.

The Trump administration’s principal concern with TikTok is the vast amount of data it possesses about American users that the Chinese government could exploit, but its primary servers are in Virginia with backups in Singapore. ByteDance swears it would never share user data with Beijing, and staunch U.S. ally Australia has found no security problem.

However, updates and algorithms that determine what users see or is censored are developed in China. And anonymized information is plenty good enough for Beijing to manipulate what U.S. users view about its repression of Muslims, crackdown on Hong Kong or an American presidential election.

Our tech companies and other businesses are under intense pressure from the organized left — directly through boycotts like those afflicting Facebook and the Washington NFL franchise — and indirectly from investment banks and major corporations that now set themselves up as arbiters of acceptable free speech and political correctness — to screen, limit and censor what we see, the language we use and generally how we do business.

The Chinese government has long done the same thing through WeChat. Communications between American users and China and the rest of the world are filtered, and Beijing pushes its propaganda on the app.

Big Tech is broadly accused of an anti-conservative bias. In an era where individuals and organizations express their ideas, discontent and praise on-line, free speech and access to all sides of an issue are threatened on platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

The U.S. Constitution protects freedom of speech from governments, not private censorship but those platforms and others have become the public square equivalent of an essential facility in antitrust law — when a monopolist controls choke points in commerce, like a rail crossing, it is often compelled to share access on fair terms.

Just as the United States should fence out TikTok, WeChat and others to protect Americans from Chinese censorship and subversion, the Justice Department, FTC and European antitrust authorities should be coming down on Big Tech for using their monopoly power to abridge freedom of speech.

• Peter Morici, @pmorici1, is an economist and emeritus business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist.

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