What has TikTok got to do with a balloon?
Republican congressman and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Mike McCaul answered, “It's a spy balloon into your phone.”
Following the suspected Chinese spy balloon case earlier this month, China and the US are butting heads again in the battlefield of internet technologies.
On 27 February, the White House gave government agencies 30 days to remove the TikTok app — the international version of Chinese short video app Douyin — from federal devices and systems. This follows a bill passed by Congress last December banning federal employees from using TikTok on government-owned devices; the Biden administration was also given 60 days to issue agency directives.
According to a White House memo seen by Reuters, government agencies must address any use of TikTok by IT vendors through contracts within 90 days, and include a new prohibition on TikTok in all new solicitations within 120 days.
China retorts by asking if the US is showing its vulnerabilities
In response to queries, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning asked at a press conference on 28 February, “How unsure of itself can the world’s top superpower be to fear a young people’s favourite app like that?”
She added that China firmly opposed the US’s “over-stretching the concept of national security and abusing state power to suppress foreign companies”, and urged the US government to “respect the principles of market economy and fair competition, stop suppressing the companies and provide an open, fair and non-discriminatory environment for foreign companies in the US”.
This boils down to a distrust of the Chinese government.
Apart from the US, India, Taiwan, the European Union and Canada have also ordered similar removals. Like the US, the Canadian government also ordered a ban on TikTok from government devices on 27 February, citing an “unacceptable” level of risk to privacy and security.
A hidden platform promoting China’s ‘grand external propaganda’?
The so-called risk to privacy and security is the main reason the US and other countries are banning TikTok from government devices. This boils down to a distrust of the Chinese government.
The Chinese government holds a stake and a board seat in the Chinese enterprise ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company. In addition, under China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law, Chinese enterprises are obliged to hand over user data if national security is at stake.
... TikTok’s algorithm can be used to advance the Chinese government’s foreign policy goals...
While there is no evidence of ByteDance handing over user information to the Chinese government, the US, Canada and others still see TikTok as a Trojan horse advancing China’s external propaganda efforts. They worry that user data gathered by TikTok will be passed on to the Chinese government and used in the latter’s espionage activities.
Another concern is that TikTok’s algorithm can be used to advance the Chinese government’s foreign policy goals, whether in promoting content that is beneficial to Beijing or suppressing opinions that Beijing does not wish to hear.
While TikTok appears to be a harmless social media platform, much of the content is not just on pursuits such as singing, dancing and cooking. A New York Times opinion piece said that TikTok has already been accused of censoring content considered politically sensitive to Beijing, as well as removing or burying videos related to Black Lives Matter, the Hong Kong protests and the repression of the Uighurs in Xinjiang.
Republican congressman and chair of the House of Representatives select committee on China Mike Gallagher noted that China was using TikTok to expand its global influence. He said, “The exact same strategy, tactics and technology that CCP uses to control the Chinese people in China are increasingly the same strategy, tactics and technology they’re using to control Americans.”
People who are anti-TikTok also say that the app’s algorithm makes the app addictive; by tracking user habits and preferences, a stream of targeted content is surfaced, keeping users hooked on the platform.
TikTok has become the new favourite thing of millennials and the Chinese media platform with the most impact on Americans.
Tiktok popular among US youth aged 13 to 17
The US government is on high alert over TikTok because of its massive number of active users: 1 billion. It took Facebook nearly nine years to reach this number, but TikTok made it in just five years.
TikTok has about 80 million monthly active users in the US. Pew Research Center statistics show that 67% of American teenagers aged between 13 and 17 use the app.
It was reported that Americans spent an average of 113 minutes per day on TikTok, far longer than YouTube (77 minutes), Netflix (52 minutes), Snapchat (90 minutes) and Pinterest (20 minutes). TikTok has become the new favourite thing of millennials and the Chinese media platform with the most impact on Americans.
While the Biden administration is aware that TikTok has an enormous reach among American youths, and last year, the authorities even got TikTok celebrities to explain the Inflation Reduction Act and the war in Ukraine, it is also aware of the risks: besides the federal government, 30 US states do not allow state government employees to use TikTok on devices owned by state governments.
What people are interested in is whether the US will ban TikTok completely.
The Republican-led House Committee on Foreign Affairs voted on 1 March to advance a bill on TikTok that would empower the Biden administration to impose a nationwide TikTok ban. However, the move has also been criticised by some as a violation of Americans’ freedom of speech, and Democratic representatives such as Gregory Meeks had said that they “strongly opposed the legislation”. The House Committee on Energy and Commerce plans to hold a hearing on 23 March, and TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew is expected to attend.
A loss of young votes?
On 6 February, when asked whether there would be a total ban on TikTok, Biden reiterated that he had not decided. “I’m not sure. I know I don’t have it on my phone.”
Bloomberg noted that given TikTok’s popularity among young people, a total clampdown could lead to Biden losing the youth vote in his possible re-election bid in 2024.
... a total ban on TikTok might offend this group of Democratic supporters and these young people might turn their backs on Democratic presidential or representative candidates in future elections.
A study by Tufts University showed that in the midterm elections last November, voters aged below 30 were the only demographic that showed much more support for the Democrats over the Republicans, with a difference of 28 percentage points.
The Bloomberg analysis held that a total ban on TikTok might offend this group of Democratic supporters and these young people might turn their backs on Democratic presidential or representative candidates in future elections.
Legislation to manage misuse of online information
Some views in the US have it that the key is to legislate to manage online data, rather than a blanket ban on TikTok.
A commentary in the New York Times said: “China has prohibited everything from Google to Twitter to this newspaper. Rather than viewing that asymmetry as unfair, we should recognize its symbolic value: America wins when it can show the world that it’s an open and democratic country… outlawing TikTok would constitute a disproportionately greater move toward decoupling and might invite retaliation…”
The article also said that “if it wanted to collect information on Americans, China could sidestep a ban and legally, though with a little more effort, purchase almost limitless amounts of information from data brokers who stockpile information about our online activities”.
So, the most effective solution is not a total ban on TikTok, but to come up with a law to manage the online collection and misuse of personal and commercial data. This law would apply to TikTok and other existing apps, as well as future data apps that might constitute security or privacy issues.
A commentary in Foreign Policy also noted that personal information and data, like water, “finds every crack and flows to every low place”. And if the US was serious about protecting national security, it should get serious about data privacy.
The company is caught in the middle between the old era and the new — too Chinese for America, too American for China. — New York Times
The article noted: “Unlike authoritarian states such as China, the U.S. has a free, uncensored internet. We have no technical ability to ban sites the government doesn’t like. Ironically, a blanket ban on the use of TikTok would necessitate a national firewall, like the one China currently has, to spy on and censor Americans’ access to the internet.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also opposes a ban on TikTok. ACLU Senior Policy Counsel Jenna Leventoff said: “Congress must not censor entire platforms and strip Americans of their constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression… we have a right to use TikTok and other platforms to exchange our thoughts, ideas, and opinions with people around the country and around the world.”
Amid the intensifying geopolitical tussling between China and the US, the New York Times aptly described TikTok’s awkward situation: “But now, with walls going up on both sides of the Pacific, TikTok seems likely to be the last of its kind as well as the first. The company is caught in the middle between the old era and the new — too Chinese for America, too American for China.”
As Washington turns hawkish towards China, it is hard to tell whether US politicians are against TikTok or China. What is certain is that even if TikTok is not banned in the US, it will face stricter political scrutiny as it continues to walk a high-pressure line in the tussle between China and the US.
This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “TikTok夹在中美博弈之间”.
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