A very ticked off President
On July 7, 2020 President Trump said he was considering punishing TikTok as a way of punishing China for Coronavirus. “It’s a big business,” he said. “Look, what happened with China with this virus, what they’ve done to this country and to the entire world is disgraceful,” he said, adding that banning TikTok was “one of many” options he’s considering to punish China over the coronavirus. The Secretary of State offered different alleged reasoning, citing potential national security concerns.
But for the president, popular TikTok app may be Irritating for a very different reason. Teenage activists using the app in June claimed they messed with a Trump rally in Oklahoma. @TeamTrump posted a tweet asking supporters to register for free rally event tickets using their phones on June 11. Thousands of users posted tweets and videos to TikTok that gained millions of views. TikTok users and fans of K-pop music have said they registered for possibly hundreds of thousands of tickets for Trump’s campaign rally as a coordinated prank to register for the rally — and then not show.
Obviously, Trump and his team were not pleased with being the object of digitally based activism – although Trump himself routinely uses his well-known social media account to rally people in favor of, and in opposition to, the focus of his interest at any given time.
What is the accusation exactly?
TikTok is owned by Chinese technology company ByteDance. TikTok has taken a number of steps to separate itself from its parent company, including bringing on board Kevin Mayer as CEO of TikTok. Mayer left his role as the head of streaming at Disney, where he launched Disney Plus.
The Trump administration and some Republicans and Democrats in Congress say they fear the Chinese Communist Party could use TikTok as a way to spy on Americans. If you aren’t familiar with it, TikTok videos tend to feature teenagers lip-syncing or doing viral dance routines, staging funny monologues, pet videos, political commentaries, snippets of social and political activism, harmless pranks, cooking clips, and other entertaining or interesting bits. Is any of that really a national security threat?
TikTok is upfront about data it collects: access to a device’s microphone and camera; location data; IP addresses; what videos are watched and “liked” on the platform and what messages are exchanged with others; online browsing history (which users can opt out of); and access to the address books on users’ phones. Sound like a lot of information? It’s not, really. Your smartphone, other apps, your computer, your tablet … They all collect copious amounts of data, usually noted in terms and conditions – you know, the fine print you scroll through and click off on without paying attention to it.
How could he actually get rid of TikTok?
If President Trump is determined to run TikTok out of the United States, he would probably issue an executive order declaring it a national security threat under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (something derived from the century-old Trading with the Enemy Act). It would make financial transactions between Americans or U.S.-based financial institutions and TikTok illegal. Violations would be punishable with civil fines or criminal prosecution. That means you would not be able to buy the app, or get updates to it, which eventually would make it unusable.
There are other ways TikTok could be punished by the Trump administration. It could be put on the Commerce Department’s blacklist, also known as “the Entity List.” Doing that would prevent any business from selling the app. Or, the 2017 merger of ByteDance and original lip-sync app Musical.ly could be challenged, potentially invalidating the entire company.
Could an American takeover of TikTok save it in the U.S.?
US investors are reportedly considering buying TikTok’s parent company ByteDance in an effort to save the app. A group of big money investors, including venture capital firms Sequoia and General Atlantic, are supposedly considering buying a majority stake in the business, according to a variety of financial news reports. There is a lot that has to be considered before such a transaction could possibly happen. Investors have to meet with regulators to find out if the outcome of such a transaction would satisfy government concerns.
Does a move to outlaw TikTok make sense?
So far, the government hasn’t presented any clear evidence laying out its privacy concerns about the app. But if the U.S. government bans it, then isn’t our government taking a further step toward controlling the way we use the internet? And isn’t that something we criticize China for doing?
Also, without getting too much into the economics of it all, if we busily create ways to block out competition in the marketplace, then we risk inviting other countries to block out our apps, our products, our technologies. We are likely to be wiser creating some better universal standards to protect privacy across all industries, foreign and domestic.
Cultural implications in America
A TikTok ban would have an impact on American culture, more than a non-user might think. The app is popular in demographics that go far beyond teenagers these days.
Hundreds and hundreds of teenagers and adults have huge followings on the platform. In this era of the coronavirus, social distancing, isolation and upheaval, TikTok is participation driven entertainment, information and education that has honestly helped people cope. It can spread important messaging on an app that reaches huge audiences. And it helps people feel connected to one another.
The optics of a potential ban are pretty bad. It honestly has the appearance that President of the United States is peeved about something on TikTok that embarrassed him, and so he has it in his crosshairs. Or that he has a personal hatred of China, and he’s taking it out on the platform because it seems to be a good target.
Keep tightening privacy laws. That is something that benefits us all. But keep a level head in handling things that have far greater implications than it might at first seem.