TikTok becomes latest casualty in Trump’s tech war with China
The future of popular social media platform TikTok in the U.S. was upended these past few days by a series of comments from President Trump about banning the app, making the Chinese-owned company the latest target of Trump’s tech war with China.
The president said Monday he supported a potential deal involving Microsoft purchasing TikTok’s U.S. stake from Beijing-based ByteDance. He added that if the deal wasn’t completed by Sept. 15, the app would be “out of business in the United States.”
But this isn’t the first time the Trump administration has gone after a tech company with ownership ties to China, with officials citing concerns over espionage and national security threats.
The gay dating app Grindr was in a similar situation as TikTok just over a year ago, when a review by the Treasury Department’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) concluded that ownership by Beijing Kunlun Tech posed a national security threat to the U.S.
Beijing Kunlun Tech subsequently announced that it would sell Grindr. San Vicente Acquisition later purchased the app for more than $600 million, Reuters reported in June.
And in the most deep-seated area of concern, the Trump administration has taken multiple steps to cut Chinese telecommunications groups Huawei and ZTE out of 5G networks in the U.S. and in allied countries, also citing concerns around espionage risks following a 2017 Chinese intelligence law that requires companies and citizens to participate in state intelligence work.
Geoffrey Gertz, a fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Global Economy and Development Program, told The Hill that even without the intelligence law, “we would still see a lot of concerns” around Chinese-linked technology groups like TikTok.
“It’s clearly part of a much broader U.S.-China economic and technology competition,” he said.
Trump administration officials like FBI Director Christopher Wray have delivered sweeping policy speeches on concerns around China in recent weeks as tensions have increased, with Wray naming Huawei and other Chinese-affilated companies.
White House trade adviser Peter Navarro in a CNN interview on Monday pointed to the 2017 intelligence law and others in China involving data when he warned the “mothers of America” against allowing their children to access TikTok, describing it as a “huge national security and privacy problem.”
TikTok is by far the most well known of Trump’s China-based targets. The app has more than 100 million U.S. users, many of whom joined very recently.
According to data from marketing intelligence group Sensor Tower, TikTok has been downloaded in the U.S. almost 78 million times over the past year, with more than 25 million of those downloads occurring during the last three months alone.
That makes Trump’s attack on the app much more high profile than his moves against companies like Huawei which are less consumer-facing.
“We have a social media sensation, TikTok, and people think to themselves, ‘It’s a place I go to relax and get away from bad news with COVID-19, what does that have to do with national security?’ ” Theresa Payton, who was White House chief information officer during the George W. Bush administration, told The Hill.
Payton, who is now CEO of the cyber consultancy group Fortalice Solutions, said many Americans may not have paid attention to the administration’s investigations into companies like Grindr, Huawei and ZTE.
“A lot of people think that doesn’t apply to my life, and enter TikTok,” Payton said.
CFIUS is a key player in the debate around TikTok. The Treasury Department group opened an investigation into ByteDance’s acquisition of Musical.ly, a predecessor to TikTok, in 2018 over the company’s failure to request a CFIUS review of whether the acquisition posed any national security concerns.
But with the explosion of TikTok’s popularity, CFIUS has statutory grounds for evaluating security concerns, which could lead to a recommendation that ByteDance sell its U.S. stake or that TikTok cease its operations in the U.S.
Some experts have questioned whether TikTok falls into the same national security category as Huawei and ZTE.
The company has vowed to never disclose data to the Chinese government and moved data storage on American users to the U.S. It also plans to hire 10,000 workers in the U.S. this year.
TikTok U.S. General Manager Vanessa Pappas said in a video released Saturday, a day after Trump’s initial threat, that the company was not “planning on going anywhere,” adding that it was building “the safest app because we know it is the right thing to do.”
“We are here for the long run, continue to share your voice here, and let’s stand for TikTok,” Pappas said.
Daniel Castro, vice president at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, told The Hill he was concerned about the lack of evidence the administration has produced to show TikTok is a threat.
“I think there is a concern with the U.S. having a hard line in any app coming from China as a national security threat,” Castro said. “I think if they gave specific details about why it is a national security threat, those details should be made public to millions of consumers who have it on their phones.”
“Are there concerns about what TikTok is doing, or about it being a Chinese company?” he asked.
In the wake of Trump’s comments, bipartisan support has built around a deal that would allow Microsoft to take over TikTok’s U.S. stake. Payton said such a deal could prove beneficial in resolving future U.S.-China technology disputes.
“I believe it could set a precedent and a positive step in the right direction for setting up guard rails … for citizens’ right to privacy, and perhaps could be used in the future for trade relations,” Payton said.
But if the Microsoft deal falls through and the Trump administration imposes a ban on TikTok, mobile app stores would be prohibited from selling the app and internet service providers would need to block access to the platform.
Gertz cautioned that if that were to occur, the administration should tread carefully.
“The average user isn’t that worried about a sale to another company,” Gertz said. “If all of them wake up and suddenly can’t open up to the app on their phones, that does seem to me like it’s going to cause some political problems at the White House, particularly if they haven’t fully articulated the security issues.”
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