International

Trump vs. TikTok: An Opening Salvo against Chinese Tech

The TikTok logo is displayed on a smartphone while on the U.S. flag, November 8, 2019. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)
The American crackdown on the popular social-media app has invited specious comparisons to China's model of censorship.

Aboard Air Force One on Friday, President Trump told reporters, “As far as TikTok is concerned, we’re banning them from the United States.” But as events progressed, the White House seemed to be offering the popular video-sharing app’s owners an off-ramp. They’re now in talks with Microsoft, which wants to acquire the app, and Trump has set a September 15 deadline for the companies to reach an agreement. (He also says any deal should include a payment to the Treasury.) Otherwise, he says, the U.S. government will ban the app.

Before last weekend’s news, there already was bipartisan agreement around doing something about TikTok. Over the weekend, Senator Chuck Schumer forcefully denounced the app, joining a group of skeptics that also includes the Biden campaign, Wells Fargo, and the U.S. Army, which have each told members of their organizations to delete the app. Following border skirmishes with China in June, India banned TikTok, along with dozens of other Chinese apps, and officials in Australia and Japan also have looked into a ban.

TikTok’s opponents seem to have won the policy debate — by September 15 the U.S. government will most likely have either forced ByteDance to sell TikTok, or it will have significantly curtailed its use in the United States by other means. However, there’s still disagreement on what precisely the national-security threat is, so it’s worth restating. Opponents of a ban point out that no one has furnished concrete evidence of TikTok’s transferring user data to the Chinese government. In recent years, ByteDance CEO Zhang Yiming has worked strenuously to provide TikTok the independence required to assuage American concerns, hiring Kevin Mayer, a former Disney executive, as TikTok’s CEO. The company’s spokespeople assure anyone who asks that the U.S. arm has complete independence from Beijing and that its servers are in Singapore and the United States.

By all accounts, Zhang seems like an entrepreneur who sincerely wants to offer an interesting product. No matter what he says, though, ByteDance is a Chinese company, and its main operations are susceptible to meddling by the Chinese Communist Party. TikTok’s software engineers work out of offices in Beijing and Shanghai, and the app shares fundamental algorithms with Douyin, ByteDance’s TikTok-like product for use in the country. Realizing that a social-media app cannot thrive in both the United States and China, ByteDance operates Douyin by separate rules, honoring Beijing’s censorship requests and CCP to spread propaganda about its treatment of the Uighur Muslim minority in the Xinjiang region. And in 2018, Zhang penned a public apology letter — in which he affirmed his support for key tenets of Xi Jinping’s ideology — after one of his other apps was deemed to be subversive. Appearing on Fox’s Sunday Morning Futures this week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo raised the possibility that TikTok could be transferring its users’ facial patterns, residence locations, and other data to Beijing. Since ByteDance has already caved to CCP pressure in the past, its practices with TikTok are a key concern.

For this reason, the talk of a ban made sense, if Trump’s comments Monday about making a Treasury payment for an acquisition deal sounded unserious. Thanks to a combination of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and a May 2019 executive order, the president has the necessary powers to enact such a measure, essentially forcing TikTok off Apple’s App Store and the Google Play Store. (He could also do this by ordering the Commerce Department to place TikTok on the Entity List, a government blacklist.) A ban could get messy, though, because the app would still remain on the phones of the 100 million Americans who already have downloaded it. Short of a U.S. government move to block Americans from connecting to the app — a drastic measure that appears not to be under consideration here — it would be at an impasse. However, Robert Chesney suggests in an analysis for Lawfare that a ban might convince creators to leave the platform, taking their audiences with them.

But such a move could still come with the potential political cost of antagonizing TikTok’s Gen Z users, many of whom are conservative. This was not lost on the Trump administration, which eventually allowed Microsoft to proceed with its negotiations to acquire TikTok’s operations in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. TikTok’s acquisition by an American company would be a victory for the Trump administration, but not just any deal will suffice. To eliminate the security risk, an agreement would need to result in all of TikTok’s operations being brought to the United States. As of now, the company’s software engineers are based in China, and ByteDance is responsible for all software decisions. Disrupting the CCP’s ability to influence the platform requires rebuilding these operations in the United States, where the app can be carefully audited. This would be a tall order — but a company with Microsoft’s resources might be up to the task.

Even though the proximate reason for taking action on TikTok was data privacy, all of this amounts to an opening salvo against Chinese tech platforms in the United States. According to Peter Navarro and Mike Pompeo, WeChat, the Chinese messaging app, might be the next focus of the Trump administration’s scrutiny. Officials are concerned that the CCP uses it to keep tabs on members of the Chinese diaspora in the West and to spread disinformation among those communities. By going after TikTok and WeChat, the administration seeks reciprocity — after all, most major U.S.-based tech companies are prohibited from use in China. Meanwhile, products that the CCP uses to influence Western democracies and harass their citizens don’t face any restrictions. The recent move against TikTok demonstrates that these instruments of CCP influence will no longer go unaddressed.

Is this, as some critics suggest, a move toward embracing China’s model of Internet censorship? Not in the slightest. The problem is TikTok’s vulnerability to CCP pressure, not the app itself, and curtailing this interference remains a far cry from blocking inconvenient ideas, as Beijing does. Instead, the administration’s stance on Chinese tech amounts to a repudiation of Beijing’s assaults on Internet freedom and a refusal to allow the export of its censorship, disinformation, and data-collection practices. TikTok is just the start.

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