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Trump’s war on TikTok

TikTok has gained more popularity since March as a result of the coronavirus deadlock in most countries. The application has nearly one billion users worldwide, and has up to 80 million daily active users in the US alone. India is TikTok’s largest market, followed by Brazil and the US. Its popularity increased after ByteDance acquired the application Musical.ly, which is based in the US, in 2017 and integrated it into its own video service.

Since its release, TikTok has become one of the most popular applications, especially after a large number of celebrities joined the platform, yet the application faces many challenges. India has banned it along with a number of other Chinese applications, and Australia is also considering a ban. On 31 July, US President Donald Trump banned the application in the US, and indicated the possibility of withdrawing the operations of the Chinese company ByteDance, which owns the application in the US.

Trump’s position

In late July, Trump said he will use his presidential and economic powers against TikTok. His decision comes after a review by the US Committee on Foreign Investment which looks into contracts that may pose threats to US national security. This is the latest source of tension between Washington and Beijing.

On 3 August, Trump emphasised the inevitability of selling the application before mid-September as a prerequisite for the continuation of its work in the US, unless Microsoft or another company can buy it while paying major compensation to the US Treasury, which plays a prominent role in completing the deal. Trump gave the Chinese company ByteDance 45 days to negotiate the sale of the application to Microsoft. Thus, Trump believes that the US government deserves to be paid for the success of Chinese social media companies after they were very popular among American teenagers. “If you’re a landlord, you have a tenant, the tenant’s business needs rent, it needs a lease.”

Many attributed Trump’s change of position from banning the application to selling it to Microsoft to his talks with Satya Nadella, CEO of the company. In addition, a number of prominent Republican lawmakers urged Trump to sell the application to Microsoft. The company stated it “will continue negotiations to acquire TikTok from ByteDance, and that it aims to reach an agreement by 15 September.” The US Committee on Foreign Investment will supervise negotiations between the two companies to guarantee the transfer of US users’ personal data to the US.

However, Trump signed two executive orders on 6 August banning US transactions with the Chinese company ByteDance which owns the application TikTok, as well as with the company Tencent, owner of the messaging application WeChat, within 45 days. The orders were signed after the Trump administration said it was intensifying efforts to delete untrusted Chinese applications from US electronic application stores, and described the two applications as major threats.

While signing one of the executive orders, Trump said TikTok could be used in disinformation campaigns in the interest of the Chinese Communist Party. Therefore, the US must take drastic measures against its owners to protect national security. In the other executive order, Trump accused WeChat of automatically collecting information from its users, allowing the Chinese Communist Party to access the personal information of American users. The two executive orders should effectively ban the applications in the US within 45 days. This came after the US Senate unanimously passed a bill prohibiting the use of TikTok on phones provided by the government to its officials and employees and Congressmen.

US justifications and motives

The US said it adopted its position against TikTok based on the following:

1- National security concerns: The US said the application collects and stores the personal data of the American public and sends it to Chinese servers, particularly those of the Chinese army, the Chinese Communist Party and official agencies that want to steal US intellectual property rights. TikTok is also working on a similar, albeit independent, version of the application in China, known as Douyin.

 2- Fears of US lawmakers: American legislators have raised concerns about Chinese laws that require the support and cooperation of local companies for the Chinese Communist Party. TikTok issued a statement in response, stressing the application is led by a US CEO with hundreds of employees and key leaders in the areas of safety and security. The statement also stressed that its priorities include promoting a safe and secure experience for different users without providing data to the Chinese government.

3- Violating online child privacy laws: The Federal Trade Commission and the US Justice Department discussed allegations that the application failed to adhere to child privacy laws, and that it should be prohibited in the US. Hence, the Centre for Digital Democracy, along with the Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood, asked the Federal Trade Commission in May to consider the application’s failure to delete videos and personal information of users less than 13 years old.

 4- Espionage: Washington said the application is being used for surveillance and espionage purposes, which represents a security risk. On 12 July, Peter Navarro, White House trade advisor, said TikTok and WeChat were China’s key forms surveillance.

The reasons why Trump is acting against TikTok:

1- Responding to the pressure of a group of senior Republican members of the US Senate who demanded the US administration evaluate the possibility of the application’s interference in US elections, after Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton and other lawmakers cited allegations of TikTok censorship on sensitive content, including videos criticizing China’s treatment of the Uighurs and Beijing’s attempts to manipulate political discussions on social media outlets.

2- The use of the application to spoil the presidential election conference last June in Tulsa, Oklahoma, after TikTok users exaggerated the expectations of attendance, and shared videos in which they claimed to have obtained free tickets to attend the election conference without having any intention of attending. As a result, many empty seats appeared at the conference headquarters. This, along with other factors, resulted in the replacement of Bill Stephen, who was deputy director of the Trump election campaign, with its former director, Brad Pascal.

3- Targeting China-based companies that have found themselves at the heart of the growing tensions between the US and China over trade, technology, and the coronavirus pandemic. The fact that the application is owned by a Chinese company makes it culpable enough.

4- A 30 June report revealed that TikTok was spying on millions of users through a new security feature in the new Apple operating system iOS 14 by copying texts from users’ devices, which allows recording clicks on their panel keys without their knowledge. This happened secretly in the past, but users of the beta version of the new iPhone system received notifications when any of the applications collected user data.

5- Anonymous group confirmed the use of the application for espionage purposes. The famous hacking group warned about the application due to security concerns, specifically because unknown people created a fake account for it on Twitter in April 2020. Anonymous warned of the damages of the application run by the Chinese government that is using it to carry out a huge espionage operation. The application collects data on the CPU, cycle count, screen dimensions, memory usage, and other apps installed and removed from the device.

6- With the deterioration of relations between the US and China over trade, Hong Kong, cybersecurity and the spread of the coronavirus, TikTok has emerged as a new focus of tension in the conflict between the two largest economies in the world. The commercial aspect of the US escalation cannot be overlooked. In his comment on the TikTok ban, Trump told the press that it’s big business.

7- Sarah Cooper, a former Google employee, widely mocked Trump on TikTok and Twitter. She parodied some of the president’s words, and mocked his linguistic mistakes. She also imitated his performance at a conference in which he said that sterilizers may be injected to combat the coronavirus. With more than half a million followers on her TikTok account and two million people on Twitter, the news was published in leading US newspapers, including The Hollywood Reporter, The Washington Post and The New York Times.

Where Microsoft and ByteDance stand

After Trump spoke about banning TikTok in the US, Vanessa Pappas, the application’s general manager, said her employees designed the safest application and she thanked the millions of Americans who use it on a daily basis. “We are not planning on going anywhere. TikTok is behaving responsibly… When it comes to safety and security, we’re building the safest app, because we know it’s the right thing to do. We’re here for the long run, continue to share your voice here and let’s stand for TikTok,” she said

Microsoft said it is negotiating the purchase of the application activities in the US and is hoping to acquire its global activities. It also confirmed its intention to buy TikTok in the United States, Canada and New Zealand. On 3 August, Microsoft said Nadella held talks with Trump regarding the acquisition of TikTok activities. The company stressed it fully appreciates the importance of addressing concerns about it, and that it will conduct a comprehensive security review.

Microsoft said it might invite other US investors to participate in the purchase. The company stressed the protection of all user data that will be transferred to the authorities and will remain inside the US, as well as the deletion of data currently stored outside the country. It emphasized the talks are still in the preliminary stage, which is why the success of the sale is yet unguaranteed.

The size of the deal is not clear yet. However, Reuters reported that the ByteDance deal may exceed $50 billion, despite the fact that US pressure to liquidate it may reduce its price. It is worth noting that the ByteDance company has received a proposal from some of its investors, including Sequoia and General Atlantic, to transfer most of the ownership of TikTok to them. In the wake of the two executive orders issued by Trump, and after stopping commercial activity with the application within 45 days, those in charge of the application threatened to take legal action against the US, and confirmed that all available means would be taken to ensure the rule of law. Tencent said it would wait for the executive order to fully understand it.

Significant indicators

Trump has recently been launching attacks against social media platforms. A number of online outlets have taken strict measures against his accounts, which prompted Trump to state that social media companies are exercising unfair censorship against him. This came after Twitter and Facebook banned a photographed file posted on his accounts for violating the two companies’ policies on misinformation about the coronavirus.

Trump’s recent statements about TikTok have caused heated controversy, as they represent a rare warning from the most senior US official regarding a social media application, which reflects the escalation of the crisis between the US president and his Chinese counterpart in the latest episode of the ongoing trade and political conflict between Washington and Beijing, which is the shrouded episode in national security considerations without sufficient evidence. The US unjustifiably exploited national security to crack down on non-US companies, despite all of its commercial activities being in compliance with international rules and US laws. Some have even argued that the embargo policies contradict the principle of a market economy and the principles of the World Trade Organization, which are based on openness, transparency and non-discrimination.

The campaign on TikTok is one of the moves targeting China-based companies that have found themselves at the centre of the growing tensions between the US and China over trade, technology and the coronavirus pandemic. Therefore, many pushed for the politicization of the US position, especially in light of the decline in security threats that may affect the security of the US, according to a number of experts. James Lewis, head of the Technology Policy Program at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, for example, said he believed that the security risk of using the application was “almost non-existent.” He added that the pressure on ByteDance to weaken it makes sense.

Previously, ByteDance sought to retain a minority stake in the American TikTok business, which the White House rejected. Under the proposed new agreement, ByteDance will be completely removed and Microsoft will assume responsibility for the application in the US. Some ByteDance investors residing in the US may be offered the opportunity to acquire minority stakes in the company. About 70 percent of foreign investors in ByteDance come from the US.

Some believe blocking an application used by millions of Americans is a threat to freedom of expression and technologically impractical. Even if it is legally possible, it harms freedom of expression on the Internet, and offers no solution to remedy unwarranted surveillance. This vision is adopted by the American Civil Liberties Union, among others. 

Trump’s supporters are extensively present on TikTok. Banning the application may backfire on the US president, especially with the approaching presidential elections in November. On the other hand, Microsoft, which also owns the LinkedIn network for social networking, will become a major competitor to social media giants, such as Facebook and Snapchat if it succeeds in acquiring TikTok. This could herald a growing wave of US companies’ acquisitions of Chinese applications if geopolitical tensions continue to escalate.

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