Over the past few months, millions of bored teenagers scrolled through TikTok, the hit short video social media app, to cope with the seemingly endless amount of free time during quarantine. While viral videos of dancing and lip synching appear to be as harmless as it gets, the platform has become a major pawn in the worsening relationship between the United States and China. TikTok, which is owned by a Chinese tech company called ByteDance, has been pushed to the forefront of national security concerns. Specifically, the conflict has catalyzed a power struggle between the US and China over information and data, with the ability to substantially alter the global role of the internet.
Banning TikTok in the United States
On August 6, the Trump administration signed an executive order barring US transactions with TikTok, effectively banning the app unless it was purchased by a US company. He cited the International Emergency Economic Powers Act to bolster this ban, which is a federal law authorizing the president to take control of international commerce in the presence of a “national emergency” or substantial threat to the country.
In order to ensure access to TikTok while cooperating with the executive order, ByteDance announced it would partner with Oracle, a US tech giant. It looks like a new company called TikTok Global will take over the US version of the app and it will be entirely divested from ByteDance. Oracle will own a 12.5% stake in TikTok Global and will store all of the US user data on its cloud in order to comply with national security requirements. Walmart is also set to take a 7.5% stake in TikTok Global.
Essentially, not much will change for TikTok users. But instead of having your data stored by a Chinese company, your information will be in the hands of an American company. Pick your poison.
Is TikTok Dangerous?
Maybe. The US claims that TikTok’s massive presence in the country poses some major national security risks due to the fact that it’s owned by a Chinese tech company, and there has been growing anxiety across the country over these security concerns. Corporations like Wells Fargo have banned employees from downloading the app, citing “concerns about TikTok’s privacy and security controls and practices,” and the US Military has banned it from government-owned phones. Internet vigilante group Anonymous has urged people to delete the app, alleging that TikTok is “Chinese spyware,” stealing data from users’ devices and sending it to China.
There is certainly merit to these anxieties – Chinese surveillance is no joke. Video cameras on nearly every street and complex facial recognition algorithms enable the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to keep an eye on their populace while establishing a social credit system that ranks citizens’ behaviour, trustworthiness, and obedience. They also widely censor social media sites in China such as WeChat, Weibo, and Tencent, keeping track of those who criticize the state. CCP surveillance has enabled violent crackdowns and oppression of minority groups and dissidents across China, namely in Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, and Inner Mongolia.
TikTok is certainly collecting enormous amounts of data – they know where you are, what your likes and dislikes are, who your friends are. In China, all major corporations have close ties to the CCP, so it’s very reasonable to worry that the CCP would request this information, and ByteDance wouldn’t have much of a choice. However, China and TikTok claim that they are not using the app to spy on foreign citizens, and the CIA even found “no evidence” that the CCP accessed TikTok data.
All major social media sites have intimate access to your information, location, data, photos, and messages. In that regard, the information TikTok has gathered isn’t that scary or different from what American-owned platforms like Facebook and Twitter have. There will always be privacy concerns surrounding these platforms. Lest we forget the Cambridge Analytica scandal, when we learned the company used data “improperly obtained” from Facebook to gather information on voters, potentially swaying the 2016 presidential election.
However, the fact that this personal dataset rests in the hands of an antagonistic foreign government is certainly reason to be nervous. The risk is especially pertinent these days, as social media has simultaneously become a primary source of accessing news and a platform used to push propaganda and shape state narratives.
The fact that US-China hostilities are being played out over the internet poses some troubling questions about the role and importance of unhindered access to data and information. Since 1989, the US has been a major proponent of a free and open internet, and has used it as a means of spreading US culture and values and as a vehicle for capitalist expansion. This has long been a central tenet of American ideals – a free and open internet goes hand in hand with democracy.
Conversely, China has banned most major international social media websites and search engines, including Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube since the early 2010s. Limiting the access to information of its citizens is a major way in which the CCP maintains its power over Chinese citizens, under the excuse of national security. Therefore, it’s pretty ironic that after the US announced the TikTok ban, a Chinese Foreign Ministry condemned the move, accusing the US of “using national security as an excuse and using state power to oppress non-American businesses.”
Recently, the internet has become even more divided, as countries assert their sovereignty over the flow of information. This trend has caused what’s been referred to as the “splinternet,” the idea that the internet is fragmenting and dividing as countries impose data sovereignty regulations. In addition to China’s Great Firewall, Iran’s ‘halal internet’ has been used to control the flow of information and suppress activism. Syria, Cuba, and Vietnam are also listed as countries with the strongest internet restrictions.
Politics and power have played deeply into the global regulation of the internet. For instance, India banned TikTok amid border skirmishes with China in June, after a clash left 20 Indian soldiers dead. The politicization of internet access will have far-reaching consequences – it is likely to embolden authoritarian governments and obscure human rights abuses by shutting out information and silencing dissent and activism.
President Trump’s decision to ban Chinese-owned TikTok is a grievous move in undermining the notion of a free and open internet. What makes the situation especially complicated is that it isn’t wholly unreasonable to fear that Chinese ownership of TikTok in the US could be a national security risk, but the move to ban the app is contradictory to some of the US’s most esteemed values – democracy, freedom of information, and capitalistic competition.
The move will also inevitably worsen the divide between the US and China. The trend of rapid global economic integration we’ve seen over the past half-century is unraveling, shattering the notion of the “World Wide Web.” This points to a future in which states have a dangerous amount of control over the information we receive and the dividing lines between nations continue to thicken and solidify.
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin