Hot or Not: Trump’s decision to control Tik Tok is getting hotter

  • + Trump announced his administration would ban the popular video app TikTok due to its Chinese origins. 
  • + Microsoft is a possible buyer of the social media platform. 
  • + American data protection and national security threats are motivating Trump to take more extreme action.
REUTERS

Why is Trump’s heat level hot?

Answer: One way or another, by September 15th Tiktok´s security threat, will be dealt with. 

Whether it’s funny cats or dance routines, the app TikTok offers limitless content to its roughly 800 million users. Especially during times of social distancing and quarantine, the app has been a big hit among teenagers and a couple of embarrassing parents. In general, the app is simple and great fun. However, its geopolitics are way more complex. Owned by a  Chinese company and used by millions of Americans, the app is now at the center of the massive Sino-American trade and tech war making the leaders of both sides very uneasy. Action is now on its way. Will TikTok be the next casualty of this war? 

On July 31, the Trump administration vouched to take action against the social media platform TikTok establishing a deadline. By mid-September, TikTok will be either banned from the US or bought by an American company. However, the status quo cannot be maintained. After the announcement, Microsoft confirmed it was attempting to negotiate with the Chinese owner of Tiktok, ByteDance, an acquisition of the app valued at approximately $50 billion. While a funny video app looks like an odd new addition to Microsoft´s business-oriented portfolio, it might be the only way to keep them around.

Who is changing Trump’s temperature?

Answer: Microsoft is stepping up. 

While Trump stated he would ban TikTok from the US, a complete ban seems too extreme even for most Republicans. The most favourable alternative is for a firm, a “very American” company to be exact, to buy TikTok from its Chinese owner. On August 3rd, Trump actually endorsed the tech giant Microsoft as TikTok’s buyer. However, many fear Microsoft and TikTok are not the best match. The tech giant has focused mostly on corporate and business-oriented software such as Windows and Excel and has away from social media. Unlike its main competitors, Google, Facebook, and Apple, the only social media platform Microsoft owns is Linkedin, which is more business-oriented.
While unfamiliar, the purchase of TikTok is not unreasonable for Microsoft. With a cash balance of $136 billion and interest rates near 0, spending $50 billion on TikTok might be good business for the company. If this deal were to happen, some estimate TikTok could be worth $200 billion in just three years. In terms of foreign policy, this could mean American data is protected to a much larger extent. However, Trump has made it clear that if a deal is not made by Microsoft or any other American firm, TikTok will be banned.

What is driving Trump? 

Answer: Fear of the Chinese Communist Party acquiring  American data. 

Ever since the rise of TikTok’s popularity, the US has shown concern over the exposure of American citizen´s data to a Chinese company. However, ByteDance, the ower of TikTok, has repeatedly tried to assure the American leadership of their independence from the central government in Beijing. The company has stressed the American data is stored in the US and Chinese laws do not apply to it. Additionally, the company hired Kevin Mayer, an American ex-Disney executive as the CEO in May. However, this move, along with intense lobbying in Washington, have not been successful. 

Still, considering the realities of corporate China, independence might not even be a matter of choice for companies. The threat of the Communist Party´s access to American data is something Trump can no longer accept. In the words of Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State: “These Chinese software companies doing business in the United States, whether it’s TikTok or WeChat — there are countless more . . . are feeding data directly to the Chinese Communist party, their national security apparatus”. Now that data is the new oil, having so much data on American citizens in the hands of the Chinese government may allow for blackmail, extortion, or information warfare. In the eyes of Trump, this is a risk the US is not willing to take. 
The main issue with these apps is the amount of information they can collect such as the location, internet addresses, private messages, and even political preferences and activism. More radical claims include the fear of facial recognition software embedded in the apps. Whether TikTok works as a Trojan horse for Xi´s government is uncertain but Trump is willing to act as if this were true.

What does this mean for you? 

Answer: American sino-phobia is wider than TikTok, others may follow. 

TikTok is not the only Chinese app under fire for its nationality, and the US is not the only one to realize the threat posed by Chinese-owned social media. WeChat was also directly addressed by Trump´s Administration as posing a threat to National Security. WeChat´s all-inclusive platform includes payments, social-media feed, dating services, and news broadcasting for over 1 billion users. WeChat´s owner, Tencent, however, also owns a large portion of Reddit, the American social media. This makes American policy-makers uneasy. Grinder, a popular gay dating app also came under scrutiny for being owned by a Chinese firm. It was also forced to sell to an American Investor Group. This demonstrates that TikTok is far from the only connection between American social media and Chinese-owned firms. Many fear banning TikTok is just the beginning of an even larger spiral of distrust between the US and China. 

 Other countries share this fear. For example, India has already banned TikTok out of similar concerns along sides with 58 other China-linked apps on the basis they threatened India’s sovereignty and security. However, the ban came accompanied by concerns of the legality of the banning apps and the extent of the power of censorship of the Indian government.
The US is unlikely to completely ban the app. TikTok will most likely be sold to a “very American” company and lip singing and #challenges will stick around. However, the tech and trade war between the two superpowers is probably sticking around too. In a globalized world, the polarization and protectionism of social media seem irrational. However, all the data social media, especially apps like TikTok, create do give an awful lot of power to the holder of said data. While for us, users, it’s just some laughs, for leaders, these are matters of national security. How to legislate on data collection and handling internationally are among the hardest questions to be answered in this new technological age.

Maria Paula Jijon

Research and Analysis Intern