There is no social media platform out there right now with more buzz than TikTok. It’s the app for zoomers and young millennials looking for distraction, virality, and even civic engagement. The video-sharing application is, as The New York Times put it, “rewriting the world” due to its huge popularity with young people. The “TikTok teens” have made a real name for themselves, but at the same time, Donald Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo said in an interview this week that the U.S. is “looking at” banning the app.
Why? Well, it supposedly comes down to two things: China and security.
TikTok has more than 1.5 billion downloads worldwide and is made by a Chinese company called ByteDance, and concerns about TikTok’s ties to China have been around since the app started to gain huge popularity last year. TikTok came on the scene in 2017 but got its start in China, with ByteDance, which also operates other apps in the country. ByteDance first made a Chinese version of the app Douyin. The company’s coziness with Beijing and continuing tensions between the U.S. in China led to the opening of an investigation of TikTok last November.
The investigation wasn’t just about the fact that TikTok comes from China, but the extent to which TikTok mines for, stores, and potentially shares the data of its millions of users—especially if that data is being shared with Beijing. The worries about how much data TikTok gets from users’ phones seem pretty valid. Just look at this recent Reddit thread about the coding of the app (which we do take with a grain of salt).
an interesting read about the privacy risks of using tiktok from a dev who tried to reverse engineer the app pic.twitter.com/KOdv6vgsZk
— avengers disassemble (@beesympathizer) June 29, 2020
But, you don’t have to just listen to Reddit posters. Reddit cofounder Steve Huffman called the app “fundamentally parasitic” in terms of its coding and privacy implications, something that the U.S. TikTok spokespeople denied, but the nature and origin of the app have many governments and privacy experts very worried. (Of note, there are similar, very valid fears about Russian data mining associated with another trendy application: FaceApp.)
TikTok’s privacy risks and the links to China have been enough to get the application banned in other countries, most recently India. The ban of TikTok in India will potentially cost the company $6 billion, as India was one of the largest and fastest-growing markets for the app. But India-China relations, much like U.S.-China relations, are in a very tense place right now, and the TikTok ban is part of a larger struggle.
And that’s why a U.S. TikTok ban isn’t unimaginable. Donald Trump and his administration are not friendly towards China at all, nor have they been supportive of Hong Kong as Beijing has expanded control over the city via recently instituted national security laws. And that’s not the only part Hong Kong plays in this story.
TikTok just pulled out of HongKong “in light of recent events,” meaning the new national security law. At first, that sounds good! TikTok must be protesting the possibility that China might use this new law to demand user data. But what they’ve done is different from what Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Google and Telegram all did this week, who said they wouldn’t cooperate with Hong Kong police and thus Beijing to track data.
Instead of saying they won’t work with Beijing, TikTok’s Chinese equivalent and predecessor, Douyin, will take over and continue to provide service to the 150,o00 TikTok users in Hong Kong. That means that the company that has been working for years in China, and more likely than not cooperating with the Beijing government, is stepping in to take over in Hong Kong, not that TikTok is making a noble protest of the expansion of Beijing’s power into Hong Kong.
TikTok has a U.S. headquarters and U.S. offices and operations, which they maintain are separate from their Chinese parent company, and they have repeatedly asserted that they are not giving data on U.S. users to China … but can we trust that? It all really depends on how much you want to believe TikTok, ByteDance, and Beijing.
And so, we come back to Pompeo’s statements yesterday, in which he said you probably shouldn’t download TikTok unless “you want your private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.” Now, that’s xenophobic fearmongering, but it’s also probably not entirely wrong. And as for a complete ban, we’re back to the fact that it’s something the administration is looking at.
Would Donald Trump jump at the chance to ban a social media platform that may have contributed to his recent humiliation at his rally in Tulsa and which he may perceive as a detriment to him in the 2020 campaign, unlike the ones he’s managed to leverage to his benefit? Yes, he likely would, especially if that had the added benefit of hurting China and a Chinese company.
A TikTok ban would not be a shocking move at all, but it would also not be a particularly smart one politically. Not that Trump cares, but banning the most popular social media app among young people would only solidify his image as a fascist who wants to crack down on free speech and his critics, even if there’s a legitimate reason to fear TikTok (and FaceApp, but Trump loves Russia, so he’ll be silent there).
If TikTok goes, it won’t be the end of the world. Vine, SnapChat, and countless other apps have come and gone from the app store and popularity. The youths will always be there to find the next big thing to use for memes and trends that poor elders will not understand. But whatever that next big thing is, before you download it, investigate where it’s from and who might be on the other side, watching you with it.
(via The Hollywood Reporter. Image: MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP via Getty Images)
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