The popular video-sharing app TikTok has recently come under fire in many countries, allegedly for user privacy issues. First, India banned it entirely, alongside 59 other Chinese-owned mobile apps. Shortly after, news broke that Australia was considering similar bans. Now, the U.S. federal government has presented TikTok and the highly popular messaging app WeChat an ultimatum—be sold to a U.S. company, or be banned from operating in the United States.
Given that the app’s data theft has not been confirmed, these actions seem to be less about the app and more about responding to the growing global influence of China. In the face of recent skirmishes between the People’s Liberation Army and the Indian Armed Forces that left dozens dead at the Sino-Indian border, increasing Chinese interference in external politics and a burgeoning conflict between India, China and the United States, it’s easy to dismiss the TikTok incident as a sideshow to the main tension. I believe, though, that what happens to TikTok will determine the trajectory of the next age in our digital world.
Governments banning mobile apps or barring companies from operating is far from new, but typically they are banned for specific legal violations, such as infringing copyright or aiding in unlawful assembly. Think Huawei, the phone company that was banned for violating U.S. sanctions on Iran. The TikTok/WeChat situation in the United States, in contrast, is ostensibly a measure to protect citizen data from Chinese intelligence.
From a national security perspective, this isn’t inherently a bad idea—limiting the ability of foreign powers to potentially influence and spy on your people through the internet could theoretically do wonders. However, it’s also very unlike the Open Internet standards that the United States pioneered and continues to champion. Shutting out foreign internet services to protect the state is ironically much more like modern China. The Chinese government’s Great Firewall is effectively the same ban, but applied to nearly all foreign content, and is currently one of the most well-known features of Chinese society. While it may be a one-off decision, an action so drastic suggests the U.S. government is now open to the idea of blocking off large swathes of the internet. If that’s the case, previously outlandish ideas of the United States cutting residents off from interacting with the people of rival countries now seem highly probable. Add in the general isolationism and concerns over fake news of the Trump administration, and our free internet suddenly looks much less safe now than it did before.
The potential TikTok ban also raises concerns about competing states pressuring individual companies to pick a side. Typically, states economically harm each other with tariffs and trade wars, targeting sectors but not individual companies. As a result, businesses do suffer, but are never specially pressured into bowing down to a rival government to survive. After all, they’re just collateral damage in a fight between higher powers. In this case, however, the Trump administration is forcing TikTok to choose—be bought by a U.S. company, which would ensure a ban in China, or stay with China and part with the U.S. market. In other words, pick a side in the world’s largest current geopolitical conflict.
If the app stays with China, as it’s likely to do, it will suffer financially, but the company and the world at large aren’t substantially affected. If TikTok’s owners decide greater profit is to be found siding with the United States, however, massive repercussions would ensue. Besides being a largely impactful political gesture, TikTok siding with the United States would effectively endorse the country as the better market for businesses. With lots of China’s power in relation to the United States stemming from its hugely significant economy, such a large stain on its reputation would pose a threat to its ability to maintain its astronomical growth and global standing.
To be clear, TikTok siding with the United States is very unlikely. If it happens, it would show the ultimatum tactic to be effective, and thus make it very attractive to both countries. I find it likely in such a scenario that both countries would subsequently push similar threats onto other corporations, forcing dozens of large businesses to make very difficult decisions. After all, the NBA is a quintessentially American company, but the amount of basketball players in China is reportedly the size of the United States’ entire population. From a profit perspective, it’s possible that the group might find China the better country for them in the long run. Similarly, many U.S. goods and services have strong ties to China. Popular American services like League of Legends, Clash of Clans and AMC Theatres (the largest theater chain in the world) are entirely owned by Chinese companies. Additionally, the cheap price and lax labor laws of Chinese manufacturing are essential to the business models of many American multinational corporations. If any of these organizations had to choose, there’s no guarantee they would stay with the United States. If the world powers see reason to keep pushing companies in this way, the economic impact of hundreds of companies leaving their homes could be disastrous.
These possibilities are contingent on TikTok caving into United States pressure, which makes the social media company’s current actions all the more important. Regardless of what it decides, however, I believe the ultimatum itself demonstrates a newfound and very ominous display of internet understanding by the U.S. federal government. It means the internet could be used as an avenue for much more policing. In the past, the U.S. federal government repeatedly demonstrated a rudimentary understanding of the digital world, of which the FCC attempting to abandon net neutrality and the confusion at Facebook hearings in 2018 are particularly famous examples. However, technology and social media can be hugely useful to law enforcement—for example, smaller U.S. police departments have used Snapchat stories to bust underage parties, and have tried to pair facial recognition with social media posts to arrest protesters and rioters. The sudden shift from the U.S. government chronically misunderstanding the digital age to being cognizant of, and taking action over, data theft at the highest levels of government—plus the heavily covered meetings between Trump and Big Tech leaders—shows that the U.S. government has finally started to catch up. Coupled with the presence of a government that has shown authoritarian aspirations, I think it’s very likely the TikTok ban signals the beginning of a new age of increased digital surveillance in this country.
At the end of the day, the Trump administration banning TikTok, in and of itself, is likely something we’ll forget in the years to come. A rival social media site will supplant it in whatever country it leaves behind, and the world will move on. I think, however, that it is the canary in the coal mine, signaling the coming of a new era in the information age. Depending on how the end of 2020 plays out, with strife amplified by the concerns of the pandemic, border skirmishes and a globally receding economy, the TikTok ultimatum could be the start of a much more turbulent and much more surveilled digital age worldwide.