If you’ve been following any tech news for the last few weeks, you have probably heard about the TikTok situation unfolding in the US where Donald Trump via executive order is forcing a sale of TikTok in the US or banning it.
To say that 2020 has been a wild and unprecedented year is an understatement. TikTok has been a source of entertainment for those staying at home as the COVID-19 pandemic closes down schools, states, countries and limits movement.
It poses the question: is TikTok really a national security threat or just a political football the US can kick to punish China in its ongoing trade war as well as war of words over the origins of the COVID-19 virus which Donald Trump refers to as the “China virus”?
The answer is as complex as you might expect.
TikTok operates no different to that of other social media apps and platforms like Facebook and Instagram. In fact, independent research efforts seem to suggest that TikTok collects the same information as other apps do and might not even be the worse offender.
Still, the association with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is a dark stain on the underpants of TikTok. Even as it attempts to distance itself from Beijing, it can’t shake the fact Bytedance (the company who owns TikTok) is a Chinese company and therefore, beholden to China’s laws.
China’s National Intelligence Law 2017 is pretty clear in what it can compel individuals and companies to do including; access, cooperation or support for intelligence-gathering activities. While it is not known if the CCP has compelled ByteDance to hand over TikTok data which is stored in Singapore, the risk is very real.
It does raise the question of what the situation would be like if a US company were being compelled by the Chinese government to sell off its assets or be banned in the country.
In November 2019, TikTok was forced to apologise to a 17-year-old American teen whose video about the detention of Uyghur Muslims in China went viral. Her account was deleted from the app which TikTok alleges was an accident. However, of all the content on its platform that could be removed, it is convenient it was this one viral video and account.
There has been talk of Microsoft being close to a deal to takeover TiTok’s US assets, with Walmart allegedly wanting a piece of the TikTok, because, why not? Allegedly, a deal being announced is imminent for TikTok’s US, New Zealand and Australian operations.
However, there has been a spanner thrown into the works. As ByteDance reportedly concedes defeat and considers selling various TikTok assets, China has updated some of its export control rules which allow it to restrict the sale and export of Chinese technology. ByteDance has reportedly responded by saying they will “strictly” obey the laws (not that they have a say in the matter).
I am not sure if ByteDance nor any of the parties involved in the potential sale could have foreseen this coming. It does, however, go against the narrative that TikTok has been painting that it is not beholden to CCP interests and control. Let’s also not forget in 2019, the Guardian reported on leaked guidelines that allude to the CCP’s influence on certain topics such as Tiananmen Square and Tibetan independence.
I think it is evident that talk of banning TikTok has a strong whiff of politics. If the US were to go down this path, it would be a slippery slope seeing the US government compel a company to sell its assets and outright banning its presence, especially with the lack of strong evidence TikTok is anything more than a social media app.
However, like all social media applications (including and not limited to TikTok) there needs to be some sweeping changes to hold social media companies to account, provide more transparency around data and how it is being used. TikTok is not alone in what it collects, but the waters are muddied by the China connection (which a sale would alleviate).