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TikTok ban: Why is Trump taking action against Chinese app in US?

Adam Smith
·9 mins read
A security weakness in the popular video-sharing app TikTok appears to let hackers hijack a user's feed (Reuters)
A security weakness in the popular video-sharing app TikTok appears to let hackers hijack a user's feed (Reuters)

The app TikTok has been repeatedly making headlines as governments around the world consider take action against the video platform.

Donald Trump has said the app will be banned in the United States on 12 November.

TikTok’s partnership with a US corporation, most likely Oracle, could save it in the country, but details about such decisions remain unclear.

Such decisions are being made for a number of reasons, including border conflicts with the Indian government and anti-Chinese sentiment from the United States.

Concerns have also been raised about the Chinese government's approach to data and privacy, both with regards to its own citizens and the potential to collect information from foreign citizens.

For the average person such decisions are confusing, especially because of the unclear relationship between TikTok (which does not exist in China), its Chinese parent company ByteDance, and the Chinese government.

What is TikTok?

TikTok is a viral video app. The app lets users record 15-second short form video, and has become popular among young people. The app reportedly has over one billion active users, 100 million of which come from the United States.

TikTok was launched in international markets in 2017, and hit the United States when it merged with lip-syncing app Musical.ly in 2018.

Who is TikTok owned by?

TikTok is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance. The company itself was headed by former Disney executive Kevin Mayer, but he has since left the company during this controversy.

TikTok says that its data is kept in the United States with backup servers in Singapore and does not keep data in China.

What data does TikTok collect?

According to TikTok’s privacy policy, the company collects a range of personal information including but not limited to:

  • Registration information, such as age, username and password, language, and email or phone number

  • Profile information, such as name, social media account information, and profile image

  • User-generated content

  • Payment information

It also collects information from users linked social networks as well as technological data including IP address, browsing history, and location data, as well as information from third-party platforms linked to it such as Facebook friends.

In comparison to other social media sites, TikTok has been more open about how its algorithm works and how it uses this collected data to recommend content on the main feed of the app.

What is Douyin?

Douyin, however, is the version of TikTok that is available in China. The app has the same logo as TikTok, as well as the same interface, functions, and content.

It was launched in 2016 in China, and has more features than TikTok. This includes more mundane additions, such as the ability to buy products in videos, but also more concerning ones, such as reportedly using facial recognition to ensure that users outside of China cannot stream on the app.

TikTok has said that it does not remove videos at the behest of the Chinese government. According to its transparency report, the countries that have most requested videos be removed are the United States and India.

However, it is unclear if the same can be said of Douyin. Douyin would not comment.

A report from 2019 revealed that TikTok did indeed censor videos that the Chinese government did not approve of, including those that mention Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, or the banned religious group Falun Gong, according to internal documents.

Bytedance said such documents were retired in May 2019, and that such guidelines did not reference specific countries or issues.

Why is it being banned?

President Trump signed an executive order which requires Apple and Google to remove TikTok from their app stores.

Such action will be taken on 12 November, unless a deal is struck.

Downloading the app will be illegal, according to the order from the US Department of Commerce.

People who already have the app installed will still be able to use it as normal after 12 November.

However, they will not be able to download new updates, which could quickly mean the app’s functionality will break since developers will not be able to fix bugs or make changes.

After 12 November, it will be illegal in the US not only to distribute TikTok through app stores but also to provide the underlying internet infrastructure that powers it, or to allow its code to be accessible.

That would effectively amount to a complete ban, with users unable to access the app at all.

The app's founder has claimed that the real goal of the US government is a "ban" on the app because it is "difficult to have a thoughtful and nuanced conversation about complex situations" such as China.

TikTok has been at risk of being banned for months, as the Trump administration has expressed concerns about the app’s relationship to the Chinese government.

A Republican senator banned staff from using the app in March, and following that staff from both the DNC and RNC have warned staff against using the app.

TikTok’s US general manager, Vanessa Pappas, commented that TikTok will remain in the US. “We are here for the long run. Continue to share your voice here and let’s stand for TikTok,” she said in a video.

“Millions of Americans who use TikTok every day, bringing their creativity and joy into our daily lives. We’ve heard your outpouring of support and we want to say thank you. We’re not planning on going anywhere" she added.

The justification behind such a ban is vague but is rooted in anti-China sentiment that has been exacerbated by the recent political actions of the Chinese government, as well as China's approach to privacy and data.

TikTok's privacy policy says that the company reserves the right to share user information with other members of its corporate group. This includes its parent company Bytedance, which could then theoretically share user data with Beijing, according to research from Protonmail.

China’s National Intelligence Law from 2017 requires organisations and citizens to “support, assist and cooperate with the state intelligence work,” and although Chinese companies have said they would not comply with such action, experts reportedly believe they would not have a choice.

Currently, the Chinese government is in conflict with protestors in Hong Kong due to a new law that banning “secessionist” activities and “subversion” of the Chinese state.

The Chinese government is also in conflict with India over border tensions which led to 59 Chinese apps, including TikTok, being banned in India.

PUBG and 117 other mostly Chinese-owned apps have also been banned in India.

The Indian government said that some of the apps had been found to be “stealing and surreptitiously transmitting users’ data in an unauthorized manner to servers which have locations outside India”, but did not make any specific allegations.

TikTok has denied such claims, and said it would leave Hong Kong.

The app was recently found to be copying clipboard data from iOS devices without user knowledge. That said other apps, including LinkedIn, PUBG Mobile (the app for the Player Unknown BattleGrounds video game), and The New York Times app, were also copying clipboard data from iOS devices without user knowledge.

What is likely to happen?

TikTok will seemingly either be banned from the United States, despite questions raised about the legality of such an option.

TikTok recently announced a new data centre in Ireland, following reports that it is moving its global headquarters to London.

It appears as if the app will become ‘partnered’ with Oracle, rather than buying the app’s US operations entirely.

Experts have said that the move “doesn’t make any sense”. Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison is unusual among tech executives for his public support of President Trump.

Microsoft was seen as the favourite to purchase the viral video app, in partnership with Walmart, but has since said that Bytedance declined its offer.

“Bytedance let us know today they would not be selling TikTok’s US operations to Microsoft. We are confident our proposal would have been good for TikTok’s users, while protecting national security interests”, Microsoft said in its statement.

Walmart will reportedly still look to purchase a stake in the company.

Donald Trump said yesterday that his administration had spoken to Walmart and Oracle about a possible deal, but that there had been no substantial change in the situation.

"We're making a decision. We spoke today to Walmart, Oracle. I guess Microsoft is still involved," Trump told reporters at the White House before leaving for a visit to Wisconsin.

"We'll make a decision, but nothing much has changed. We'll make a decision soon."

Twitter has also reportedly looked into buying TikTok.

Recently, a consortium of companies that includes Google's parent organisation Alphabet has looked into buying a minority, non-voting stake in TikTok, according to Bloomberg, but apparently that "effort has fizzled in recent days."

“If TikTok separates as an American company, that doesn’t help us, because it’s going to be worse – we’re going to have to give China billions of dollars for the privilege of having TikTok operate on US soil,” said White House adviser Peter Navarro

The US government could legally sever TikTok from its parent company Bytedance, as it has done in the past with other Chinese companies. In 2019, the US government demanded Beijing Kunlun Tech to relinquish their control of Grindr.

However, such action would be politically troubling because unlike Huawei, which has been charged with of racketeering and conspiracy to steal trade secrets, the allegations against TikTok are not as obvious.

“These Chinese software companies doing business in the United States, whether it’s TikTok or WeChat … are feeding data directly to the Chinese Communist Party, their national security apparatus,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in an interview with Fox News.

“It could be their facial recognition pattern. It could be information about their residence, their phone numbers, their friends, who they’re connected to. These are true national security issues.”

WeChat is owned by Tencent, which also owns the PUBG Mobile app, and it is currently unclear whether western governments would take action to separate Tencent from PUBG for the same reasons as have been alleged against TikTok.

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