On the surface, the news that US President Donald Trump is threatening to ban Chinese-owned video-sharing app TikTok while aboard Air Force One may sound like a joke, or a decision that will only impact teenagers and their obsession with learning the latest dances. However, upon deeper inspection, this debate is only the latest in a long-standing relationship between America and China that is, at its core, economic. It also shows us deeper issues regarding data collection, government interference, and user privacy. Especially in the context of the upcoming 2020 US presidential election, and ever-more strained America-China relationship in light of COVID-19, it is worth examining this battle to uncover important and often uncomfortable truths about the ‘West’ and privacy.
More Than Just dances
“If one were to guess which social media platform would be in the middle of a serious inter-continental political debate, it wouldn’t be the app where the first video I saw today was of a dog having a bath.”
TikTok has been a fast-growing video-sharing platform both within and outside of China since merging with the app Musical.ly in 2018. It is also viewed as the successor to popular video-sharing app Vine which was disabled in early 2017. For many in the US and Europe, especially parents, TikTok is known as the app their kids spend endless hours on, learning dances to songs, and where they may aim to find fame. For others, TikTok is a refuge to find people like them, or the place to share that funny thing their friend did, or to give out their latest recipe. In short, there are many ‘sides’ to TikTok, and its versatility is precisely part of its appeal. If one were to guess which social media platform would be in the middle of a serious inter-continental political debate, it wouldn’t be the app where the first video I saw today was of a dog having a bath. However, it is the inner workings and management of the app which have sparked controversy in the Oval Office.
So, it is obvious that TikTok’s algorithm is working. As of July 2020, the application had 800 million worldwide users, with over 1 billion videos watched per day. The company is now worth $75 billion. A successful app is not on the surface an issue. Although not directly affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party, the ‘long arm’ of the Chinese government certainly extends to the app, which is owned by tech company ByteDance. Questions regarding the app’s security and affiliation with the Chinese Communist Party have been raised increasingly over the past year, as the app was given an award for “resolutely upholding the party’s leadership” in 2019. Furthermore, security company ProtonMail warned in July 2020 that users of TikTok should ‘beware’ as the app ‘likely shares data with the Chinese government’.
In late 2019, perhaps the most glaring example of Chinese-government involvement with TikTok occurred. A viral TikTok spreading information regarding Uighur Muslim detention camps in China was taken down, supposedly due to ‘human error’ rather than for political reasons. Whether this is true is uncertain, but regardless, it is suspicious that the video, which concerned a government wrongdoing the Chinese have been eager to suppress, was removed. Government involvement in applications is of course not limited to this instance, but it has nevertheless become the latest target of Trump’s disfavour. It is no secret that President Trump has an aversion to the Chinese government as evident by the endless tariffs imposed by his administration. It is Tiktok’s possible affiliation with the Chinese government that led to Trumps aircraft announcement on August 1st.
President Trump announces to reporters on Air Force One that he’s banning TikTok.
— Kaitlan Collins (@kaitlancollins) August 1, 2020
Fear of the app ‘dying’ quickly swept across the platform, in the form of jokes as well as legitimate concern, as it became apparent that ‘killing’ an app was not out of Trump’s realm of possibility. Many speculated that the president’s tirade was primarily regarding the app’s content but shifting focus to the government-affiliations (or lack thereof) of TikTok reveals much more about the American-Chinese economic relationship, as well as the online privacy (or lack thereof) of the American population.
The Long road of Economic Competition
At its core, America is the (im)perfect example of a capitalist nation, and China its communist counterpart. The flaws in each economic system can be debated and argued at length, but what can be agreed upon is the competition of the two models that has shaped academic, political, and diplomatic discussions of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It is also agreed that the nations have the two largest economies in the world – who is on top depending on the measurement being used, and on whom you ask. If one takes GDP as the measurement of economic growth, the US appears on top, but PPP (which takes into account inflation, tariffs, and other factors) puts China as the largest economy in the world. Mutual dependency for goods and exports/imports, especially of the US on China, also makes the countries indispensable to one another. But that hasn’t stopped Trump in his attempt to distance the United States from China.
“China remains the focus of Trump’s trade war. ”
President Obama failed to achieve definitive peace between America and China, but his diplomacy certainly made improvements on the leftover hostilities of the Korean War and Vietnam War eras. It was then almost inevitable that Trump’s ‘America First’ economic policy would be negative against the only country that could literally give the US a run for its money. And so, the tariffs began. The tariffs imposed on China include 25% on steel and 10% on aluminium in 2018. It is important to note that Trump later extended these tariffs to the European Union, Mexico, and Canada, but China remains the focus of Trump’s trade war. The tariffs may appear as more damaging to China in theory, but in reality, the effects on the US are much more negative. Although the measures have brought $72 billion in revenue to the US, GDP in fact decreased. If the policy did not yield economic gain, then the political aspect of this trade standoff becomes clearer.
Ideologically, America’s capitalism and China’s communism are economic foes. Private ownership versus government ownership, market forces versus redistribution of income, economic growth versus government control – these are the differences, to name a few. As mentioned, in practice the two models in each country rely on one another for success, and so the political ideology becomes the focus. China’s intense control and surveillance of the population is no secret, and its human rights abuses of grave concern. So are Trump’s restrictions and actions towards TikTok purely down to these worries and out of protection for American’s privacy? Not necessarily.
Not Just a China Problem
The problem of internet privacy is not exclusive to China, it is just as prevalent in the United States. Take a look at the privacy policies of any major social media platform or application, and you’ll find that they collect similar data to TikTok. Yes, the term ‘geolocation-related data’ appears scary (nobody wants the government to know their exact whereabouts), but big tech companies and governments having access to this is nothing new.
If you use a fitness app for tracking running or cycling, (Strava, for example) that data is tracked very accurately and can trace your every move when working out. The Strava example is particularly concerning for geopolitical issues, as in 2018 the app revealed the locations of secret US military bases through its tracking data. In the context of COVID-19 and needs for accurate ‘Track and Trace’ apps, geo-tracking is being utilised by governments worldwide to help track the spread. The US government have been looking into this in order to produce an effective track and trace system, which would of course mean constant knowledge of the populations’ whereabouts during the pandemic. And so, one may wonder, what really is the difference between the Chinese government having access to your data than the American government?
The answer is unfortunately not that this data is safer in the hands of the American government or indeed American tech companies. The most relevant, and worrying, example of this was the Cambridge Analytica data breach, revealed in 2018. But this was not the usual data breach of passwords or emails being hacked – former Trump advisor Steve Bannon specifically used this data to influence American voters in the 2016 Presidential election. We may not know for certain if this resulted in Trump’s election, or if without the breach Trump would have lost. What we do know, though, is that the Trump administration accessed private, supposedly secure information about American voters for political means. Sound familiar?
The example of Cambridge Analytica is not meant to paint American privacy abuses as worse than Chinese abuses, or to excuse the wrongdoings of the Chinese government. It does, however, show that a data breach is bad no matter which government is involved, and that use of personal data for political gain should be condemned whoever is involved. This therefore points towards Trump’s actions against TikTok being due to a cumulation of political opposition to China, concerns regarding the two nations’ economic relationship, and perhaps an attempt to win points for the 2020 election.
Fallout of the TikTok Tirade
As mentioned, Trump’s TikTok ‘ban’ was first announced aboard Air Force One on August 1st, but it has yet to be implemented as of the writing of this article (August 12th). Being on TikTok since the first announcement, worries (and jokes) about the app disappearing in America have certainly quietened down in recent days. In part, this is thanks to a TikTok from the US General Manager, Vanessa Pappas, posted on the same day as the initial announcement.
@tiktokA message to the TikTok community.♬ original sound – tiktok
“Attacking an app that is mostly used by younger Americans certainly won’t hurt Trump’s target demographic of voters, and on the surface appears to be another example of America dominating over China.”
Pappas reassures the (currently) 53.8 million viewers of the video that TikTok is ‘not planning on going anywhere’, while also emphasising the American workforce on the app, which is over 1,500. Users of the platform may have been convinced, but Trump continued to insist his ban was genuine, and on August 7th announced the suspension of US transactions with TikTok, and the Chinese-owned messaging app WeChat.
Again, this harks back to Trump’s tariffs and economic measures brought against China. The executive order also forbids government employees from using TikTok on government-issued devices. Although this appears to be a step forward in Trump’s aim to get rid of the app, further news came of Microsoft’s aim to purchase the app in the US, meaning it would be American-owned, and therefore remain legal. As of right now, it still remains uncertain what will come of Trump’s TikTok tirade, and it is also uncertain whether the app’s security is of any true concern to the American population. Attacking an app that is mostly used by younger Americans certainly won’t hurt his target demographic of voters, and on the surface appears to be another example of America dominating over China.
So, what does this all mean? Perhaps reading so much into the debates surrounding a video-sharing application appears futile. But it reveals a lot about the way privacy is viewed in America, especially in the eyes of those in the White House. In the twenty-first century, whether it is right or wrong, surrendering some form of privacy comes part and parcel of using technology and the internet. After all, iPhones have thousands of scans of our fingerprints and faces. The traditional argument remains – “Well, what do you have to hide?” Privacy runs deeper than that though, we shouldn’t have anything to hide in order to want our data to be protected.
Personally, the concerns around TikTok won’t stop me from using it any more than concerns around Facebook and Instagram’s privacy would stop me from using it. On a much broader scale, the battle between America and China being carried out through TikTok is immensely interesting, and arguably a new form of modern warfare in which there is no threat of bombs, no threat of troops, but threats of taking away teenagers’ dancing videos. In the twenty-first century, it is completely feasible, and somewhat expected, that geopolitical debates are happening over an app.