Editor’s Note – As the technological realm becomes more pervasive, whom can we trust? Each week, Liberty Nation brings new insight into the fraudulent use of personal data, breaches of privacy, and attempts to filter our perception.
When looking up TikTok online, one is likely to encounter dozens of stories about whatever happens to be going viral at any particular moment in time. It’s easy to get sucked into a black hole of videos, all of which are 3-15 seconds in length – not so great for education or deeply considered commentary, but a fantastic resource for viewing whacky moments and … collecting data?
When President Donald Trump threatened to ban TikTok, it was the first serious suggestion that an app could be forbidden by the United States government. Trump may be trying to play China at its own app-banning game, but where does the matter stand now, and will he get anywhere?
How Would It Work?
In terms of the how, a ban will take the form of sanctions barring U.S. entities from transactions with TikTok and its parent company, ByteDance.
On Aug. 6, the White House issued two executive orders (EOs) invoking the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) to deal with the “national emergency” posed by ByteDance, as well as Chinese tech giant Tencent and its WeChat messaging app. American businesses and individuals will be prohibited from transacting with the companies or connected enterprises. The specifics of which transaction types will be affected are to be released in September.
The TikTok EO accuses the app of capturing “vast swaths of information from its users,” including location data, internet browsing histories, plus other network information. It suggests the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) could use this data to track federal workers, engage in corporate espionage, and commit blackmail. The EO also scorns the platform for censoring content critical of the Chinese government.
The WeChat order added that this app might be used to track Chinese nationals overseas, as, unlike TikTok, WeChat is widely used within China (or at least its Mandarin-language equivalent, Weixin, is).
Talk has been going on since the announcement that TikTok is planning to sue the Trump administration over the move – but so far, no lawsuit is forthcoming. “We have made clear that TikTok has never shared user data with the Chinese government, nor censored content at its request,” said the company. Indeed, the orders seem not to be about what has happened, but rather what could happen in the future.
Is it Constitutional?
While Trump’s executive orders level censorship allegations at TikTok, his own move has been subject to similar claims. Does the effort to ban these apps signify a breach of First Amendment free expression rights? Some think so, and the decision may be subject to legal challenge.
“While there is significant cause for concern with TikTok’s security, privacy, and its relationship with the Chinese government, we should resist a governmental power to ban a popular means of communication and expression,” wrote digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation. The EFF also notes that a ban would not stand up if the president were motivated based on anti-Trump content – particularly after teens on the platform trolled his Oklahoma rally with phony registrations. However, there is no direct evidence showing Trump’s personal motivations, and the order fits into his administration’s broader tech and China policies.
Does an app constitute a mode of constitutionally protected speech and expression – and does that override national security?
Distancing from China
TikTok’s best chance to keep its U.S. presence is to distance itself from China. It is well known that Microsoft is negotiating a possible purchase of the company’s U.S. operations. The deal will have to be done within weeks, according to a deadline extended by the president – who also said the U.S. Treasury should get a fee from the multi-billion dollar sale. But will the acquisition go through? Either way, ByteDance has been ordered to divest its U.S. entities by the cut-off date.
Microsoft employees are against the deal, reported Business Insider, with a leaked staff survey pitting 63% against acquiring the app, and only 18% in favor. “This deal is unethical from pretty much any perspective. That Microsoft would even be considering stepping into this situation is unthinkable,” one worker reportedly commented. Even co-founder Bill Gates has doubts, calling the deal a “poisoned chalice” in an interview with Wired. No longer on the board, though, he seemed to wash his hands of the matter.
Despite all that, the Silicon Valley behemoth doesn’t seem perturbed, expanding its vision to TikTok operations in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand – probably because its stock price surged 6% as a result of the negotiations.
Twitter, too, has supposedly contemplated entering the ring to buy a portion of TikTok, although this has not been confirmed.
WeChat About It, OK?
But is everybody looking in the wrong direction? “The WeChat story is much more important than the TikTok story,” suggested LawfareBlog recently. This is because the TikTok tale may have a predictable ending of selling to Microsoft, but WeChat has not been presented with that easy escape clause. Additionally, ByteDance has no other significant U.S. presence, while WeChat is owned by Tencent, a company with various business interests in the U.S.
The WeChat ban has likely failed to gain much public attention because it’s just not that widely used outside of China, except by people who have business or personal connections with that country. Since China has blocked many foreign apps, WeChat is one of the few options for digital communication within and into the nation. This is in stark contrast to TikTok, which isn’t even allowed in China and relies on an international market.
Will Tencent be ousted from its other U.S. investments (including stakes in Tesla, Reddit, and Spotify to name just a few), or will these be named as allowed transactions? It’s still unclear.
Who Will This Affect?
A WeChat ban will most affect Chinese nationals in the U.S., and others with business, family, or social ties in the People’s Republic. A TikTok ban, on the other hand, would mostly impact young people across the U.S., with a third of the country’s usage among those in the 10-19 age group, followed by 29.5% in the 20-29 demographic.
Of course, the U.S. isn’t the first country to ban the video-sharing app; that distinction recently went to India – home of TikTok’s largest market. Although India’s Ministry of Information Technology did cite concerns about data transmission when it banned 59 Chinese apps in June, it’s thought the move had more to do with a heated border dispute in the Himalayas.
In the end, TikTok does collect large amounts of data from users. However, this is hardly unique – all manner of apps from around the world do the same things. For the U.S., it’s not a matter of user privacy, but of who gets access to that valuable information. The United States would rather keep the data for itself or “trusted” partners than accept the possibility of giving it away to China.
That’s all for this week from Tech Tyranny. Check back next Monday to find out what’s happening in the digital realm and how it impacts you.
Read more from Laura Valkovic.