Banning TikTok [Technical issues only]

I don’t mean to debate the legality of this, or the morality. This is a technical question based on my ignorance of internet technology.

Beginning Sunday, it will be illegal to host or transfer internet traffic associated with WeChat, the Department said in a release. The same will be true for TikTok as of Nov. 12, it said.

How is the technologically possible? I understand telling the apple store they can’t have the app available for download, but how do they stop people who already have the app from using it? In other words, how does an internet service provider know which bits and bites are transferring tiktok messages and which ones are transferring Instagram?

Presumably, there is an IP address (or a range of addresses) associated with the banned service’s servers. Traffic to those servers could be blocked by IP address.

But, that’s what VPNs and Tor is designed to circumvent. I predict a boatload of articles showing how to defeat the ban.

There’s many things they can do, ranging from easy and surgical to invasive and nuclear (but a good excuse to get more control over the internet):

Without modifying people’s phones, just working with ISPs and such, in the model of China’s Great Firewall:

  • Blocking IP ranges, like beowulff said
  • Blocking DNS entries & servers, if either app uses domain names
  • Doing deep-packet inspection to identify traffic that looks like it’s from those apps
  • Using machine learning to identify suspected packets from those apps, if encrypted
  • Force ISPs and device manufacturers to figure it out or get fined/tazered/tweetered at
  • Cry “national security,” put it on some sort of export restriction list and spin the legalese so that app packets sent anywhere overseas constitute a violation
  • Take over encryption certificates and redirect all traffic to secret servers

If they really wanted to – this would cause a minor outcry – they could also compel Apple, Google, Intel, Arm, etc. to install secret malware on people’s phones to monitor their traffic, or buy a zero-day vulnerability from the Russians or some Chinese teenager, and stealthily install a monitoring program. It’s a bit overkill for something as blase as TikTok, but governments have always had a vested interest in monitoring people, and this might be a good excuse to start that. First it’s just to prevent Chinese takeovers/Russian hacks, then to keep away them antifascistactuallycryptofascist terrorists and their gay space communism agenda from infecting pure Murican children, and so forth.

IMHO what’s significant here isn’t so much the technical capability – China has long since perfected that – but that this is the government choosing to exert its power over online communications in a relatively unprecedented way. Now they know they can, and the tech companies won’t really stop them, and it’ll just keep happening.

Thank you. That (and the link) were helpful. I really have a blind spot about how the internet actually works, but I can gather enough from this to get the general idea. It’s hard to grasp that with so much data going everywhere at all times, someone could parse out (and block) the data related to a particular app.

Thread title edited to indicate that it is only on technical issues. There is another GQ thread on legal issues. Please restrict posts on that subject to that thread.

General Questions Moderator

Yeah, it’s pretty nuts. Basically boils down to 'lots and lots of robots". Like how Google indexes an ever-growing internet, the government (with resources) could do a lot of automated monitoring. We forget now, but it was only a few years ago when Snowden and Manning revealed how much automated domestic spying there was. Similar programs existed decades before them (see Mass surveillance in the United States - Wikipedia). Mass monitoring and censorship are really two sides of the same coin, reliant on the same underlying technologies and willing participants.

And mind you, those were in the Obama and Bush years, and before, when government still had to pretend to follow the law and Constitution. Going forward, no such safeguards will be in place.

Edit: simulposted with the mod note. Won’t say more about the legal aspects in this thread.

A bit of loosely-related, loosely-relevant history:

About 20 years ago, Microsoft (which owns, operates, or controls a great many web sites and related pages) updated their Terms-of-Service, including a clause claiming ownership of any and all data transmitted into, out of, through, or within any server under their control. This was immediately noticed by observant users who actually read the ToS, and created worldwide alarm. It seemed to say that if you, say, e-mailed your business plans to your partner, and those packets passed to or through any Microsoft-controlled server en-route, that MS owned it.

The meme quickly circulated: “Microsoft: All your biz plans are belong to us!”

Quickly, a great many ISP operators and small-time site owners placed a block on all known MS IPs to ensure that they would neither accept any packet from any known MS IP nor send any packet to any known MS IP. This was to protect themselves, and their users, against MS claiming ownership of any such data they might have handled.

It turned out (as was quickly suspected) that MS really wanted to claim something much more normal, like anything you posted on one of their message boards became MS property, or something like that, but the legalese had been written by some overzealous lawyer (perhaps fresh out of legal school) who had written the language waaaaaaaay to broadly and over-inclusively.

As I recall, this went on for a week or two, by which time Microsoft re-wrote and re-issued that mal-written ToS.

ETA: Okay, here’s a link I found relating to this two-decades-old incident: