Aboard Airforce One on Friday 31st July, Donald Trump announced his plans to ban Chinese-owned social media company TikTok from the United States in a signature snap-style statement. The president was returning from Tampa, Florida, which was the latest leg of his campaign trail as he attempts to win votes and financial backing for his re-election in the forthcoming presidential elections on 3rd November. Trump backed his announcement with claims that TikTok had been acting as an intermediary for data collection from an estimated 100 million U.S. TikTok users to its Chinese parent company, ByteDance. The personal data of American citizens, the president fears, is to be used for nefarious purposes by the Chinese government – a claim TikTok vehemently denies.
This inflammatory allegation slammed the brakes on negotiations between U.S. company Microsoft and its target company ByteDance, accompanied by an overnight slew of emotional farewells from some of TikTok’s most influential creators. Then, on 2nd August, Trump performed a U-turn on his original plans to cease all TikTok operations within the US following Microsoft’s appeal to the president. Negotiations between Microsoft and ByteDance resumed with a 45-day extension granted by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to allow Microsoft to explore the acquisition of TikTok. Once again, on 3rd August, the president’s position on the fate of TikTok was left somewhat ambiguous when he claimed indifference to exactly which company owned TikTok, so long as said company was secure and “very American”. However, this second decision was accompanied by the conditional request that the U.S. Treasury receives a “substantial portion” of the purchase price; furthermore, if a deal has not been concluded by 15th September, an outright ban on TikTok will come into effect in the U.S.
TikTok v Trump: More than meets the webcam?
Trump’s vendetta against the Chinese-affiliated company has been set against the backdrop of a power struggle between the West and China through various commercial checkmates. Accompanying this game of ‘cat and mouse’ is an ongoing political maelstrom within the U.S.
With the presidential elections fast approaching, it remains more important than ever for Trump to maintain his support base to succeed against his opponent, Joe Biden. However, Trump was left red-faced following the boycotting of a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in which many teen TikTok users perpetuated the buying of tickets with a subsequent ‘no show’ through viral videos. This boycott left the venue (a stadium with a capacity for 19,000) with decidedly fewer filled seats and a less than cheerful president. TikTok, which has amassed over 2 billion downloads on the App Store and Google Play globally, has flexed a political capability which neither Trump nor the rest of the wider world could have foreseen. With TikTok in the firing line for sabotaging the turnout in Trump’s third strongest supporting state, this event did more than just rattle the president. He has since launched a tirade of bizarre (and largely false) accusations surrounding the supposed loopholes for fraudulent voting via the postal voting system, with ‘unconstitutional’ threats to postpone the November elections. This could be viewed as a veiled effort to buy time as he attempts to claw back some of his waning popularity and presidential command, partially orchestrated through the tech-savvy millennials and Generation Z.
A question of security or democracy
On the other hand, if data security in the hands of Chinese technology companies is a legitimate concern of the president, it is not without reason. In 2012, Huawei was banned from incorporation into U.S. companies amidst fears over its technology being used as a data collection arm by the Chinese government thus facilitating easier infiltration into U.S. operations. In May 2019, the company featured in the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security Entity List, banning Huawei from all U.S. telecoms with an extension to this order until 2021. As a result of the increasing pressure from the U.S., on the 14th July 2020, the United Kingdom announced the removal of Huawei technology and products from all telecommunications networks by 2027, commencing with the cessation of acquiring Huawei 5G equipment post 2020.
In a style reminiscent of the banning of Huawei, Europe and the U.K. may follow America’s lead in issuing a curtailment of TikTok’s use by their citizens. Indeed, the U.S. government has launched a so-called ‘clean network’ approach which encompasses the banning of all other Chinese apps from U.S. data stores – an initiative which the U.S has urged its Western counterparts to adopt. The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, said on 5th August: “With parent companies based in China, apps like TikTok, WeChat and others are significant threats to the personal data of American citizens… We call on all freedom-loving nations and countries to join this clean network”. With the overhaul of Huawei’s presence in the West, it cannot be contested that the West suspects foul play, in some capacity, on the part of the Chinese government. However, claims relating to Chinese misuse of data collection through apps, akin to Trump’s assertions about the supposedly flawed postal vote system, have yet to be proven.
The rapid deterioration of trading relations between the West and China have been a contributing factor in a steadily souring relationship between China and the West. Indeed, China branded the recent decision to force an American acquisition of TikTok as “theft ”, with reports surfacing on 8th August of TikTok’s plans to sue the Trump administration over the potential banning of TikTok from the U.S. Considering Europe’s recent invalidation of the U.S. Privacy Shield Agreement, the West has become increasingly alert to the tangible risk that technology poses to the private data of individuals. Furthermore, the Trump administration has also begun to grapple with the emerging evidence that a seemingly benign video app can not only be used as a vector for the transfer of data, but also as a mechanism for pedalling anti-Trump sentiment. Thus, the murkiest area of this debate surrounds Trump’s true motivation for banning TikTok. Granted, the potential ban may purely be a proactive, and, perhaps, pragmatic decision to protect the security interests of America and her citizens. However, the more cynical observer cannot help but chew over the potential link between Trump’s suffering at the hands of rebellious ‘TikTokers’ and his ongoing threat to stifle the social media app. Whatever instigated the recent actions by the leader of the free world, Trump may have, whether intentionally or not, echoed the behaviour of the very regime which he so dislikes by attempting to extinguish a technological outlet of democratic expression.