The US wants TikTok banned or sold

Apr 3, 2023
Social Media Apps.

The United States’ issue with TikTok is uncannily reflective of its ongoing problem with China. It grew too fast for their comfort, is too economically and technologically successful and so deeply enmeshed in their lives that they felt the impulse to disengage.

It evokes the same suspicion that engaging with something Chinese in origin must compromise, to an inordinate extent, the safety of the Americans. How, they have yet to work out. Meanwhile the safest solution seems to be to ban it or transfer its ownership to Americans.

The controversy over the social media platform is a very interesting one for people interested in the pros and cons of modern communication technology of this kind. Above the genuine concerns about the negative social impacts are the political implications of the move to ban the platform altogether or effect a forced sale of the company. The first TikTok scare was initiated by President Donald Trump who proposed a ban or forced sale of the media platform in July 2020. TikTok remained a threat in the Biden administration. A Congressional Hearing with the company’s CEO, Chew Shou Zi, of Singapore in attendance was conducted on the 23/03/2023. Parts of the hearing available on YouTube websites are difficult to watch for anyone with a sense of fairness. Chew prepared his brief well with evidence and convincing arguments, while the congressional team grilled him with statements described by some commentators as baseless, scaremongering, meaningless and racist. The congressional teams asked complex questions but insisted on “yes or no” answers.

Overall, analysts’ opinions of Congress are not positive. Some even pointed out that Congress itself was the problem. Three websites listed below provide an interesting range of views:

In the geopolitical sense, it raises the question as to whether the destruction of TikTok constitutes a strategy in the US’ professed competition with China using national security as a smokescreen. It is obvious that the political implication of a ban in the US did not escape TikTok’s CEO when he pointed out that the platform was used by 150 million Americans and that as many as 5 million small businesses use TikTok to secure business. Moreover, the majority of the users are young people who are also voters. Having noted that, it is also fair to indicate that the hearing raises genuine concerns about the negative effects that the platform has on children. It also highlights the fact that the US is badly in need of legislation to protect private data. Nonetheless the problems associated with the operation of TikTok is no different from any of the other media platforms like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, albeit that TikTok is said to be much more effective in its impact on the users. As with any new communication medium there are teething problems that can be solved in time as they surface. Therefore, it does not deserve a ban or forced sale any more than the others.

Congress’ security concerns, in a nutshell, revolve around collecting data and developing profiles on millions of users that could be used for blackmail; espionage, and the possibility of tracking US government employees and contractors; and the shaping of US public opinions. As pointed out by analysts, these concerns are hypothetical but not implausible.

In his defence of TikTok, Chew provided the following response:

  • That there is no evidence that the Chinese government has access to TikTok’s data and that he has never provided any.
  • That TikTok is not owned by the Chinese government but by a privately owned company, Bytedance, with a good part of it belonging to overseas investors.
  • That the TikTok management takes the private information of its users very seriously and has taken steps to protect them. Under an arrangement called Project Texas, user data will be under the control of the American tech giant Oracle which will audit its algorithms and appoint a three-person government approved oversight board (Daryl Guppy, CGTN, 25/03/2023; CNA/Bloomberg, 23/03/2023).
  • That TikTok itself is not available in China.
  • That it is headquartered in Los Angeles and Singapore; and has a staff of 7,000 in the US.

To TikTok’s credit, it was reported by Catherine Thorbecke of CNN (23/03/2023) that independent researchers “looking under the hood” of TikTok in 2020 concluded that the app “does not appear to collect any more data than your typical social media network”. In 2021, a Taiwanese based researcher, Pellaeon Lin at the University of Toronto came to the same conclusion.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Congress still insisted that the Chinese have access to user data and did not acknowledge the measures that were taken to address security and other concerns. What the hearing indicates is that there was hardly any due process. There was a lot of grandstanding on security claims that were unsubstantiated. Ultimately, the whole drama leads back to the opening statement by Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ to CEO Chew that “Your platform should be banned.” Daryl Guppy (CGTN, 25/03/2023) calls the security story a “smokescreen” because security concerns do not have to be fully shared with the public.

This is certainly not the first incidence of the US destroying or attempting to destroy competition. Noam Chomski (The Precipice, 2021) mentions the banning of Huawei by Donald Trump, indicating that “Huawei’s cheaper and superior technology may give them an ‘unfair advantage’ in establishing 5-G networks” (p.169). He further calls attention to the superior Japanese manufacturing techniques in the 1980s that were “undermining inefficient US enterprises and the Reagan administration had to intervene to block Japanese imports by ‘voluntary export restraints’ – where voluntary means ‘agree or else’- and other devices to enable backward American management to catch up” (p.169). Like Huawei, threats to ban or force-sale TikTok using security concerns aptly fall under Chomski’s “other devices”.

The situation with TikTok is as dismaying as it is intriguing. With the US population of slightly above 300 million, 150 million American users constitute 50% of their total population. Most of the users are young people between the ages of 18 and 34; some to the extent of addiction while others derive their livelihood from the medium, TikTok is becoming a nightmare like its Chinese parent that the US has to deal with. So far, their performance falls short of their claim to “exceptionalism”.

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