Why time could be running out for TikTok

Appy go lucky: TikTok’s app has been downloaded two billion times since its launch in 2016. © Reuters

Is it dangerous to use TikTok? President Trump is threatening to ban the mega-popular app as a threat to privacy and national security. But some believe it is more about winning an election.

If US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were making a TikTok video, he might choose DAGames’s song Get Out as his backing track. “This place was not for you to look and see,” he would sing to a photo of TikTok’s creator, Zhang Yiming. “Take it from me!” Then he would pick up a piece of chalk and turn to a blackboard. “Let me spell it out for you…Get out!”

Pompeo gave the same message more formally in an interview on Sunday. The US government, he said, was about to curb TikTok’s presence in the USA. And, last night, President Trump confirmed he would ban TikTok from the US on 15 September unless its American operation was sold to a US firm, such as Microsoft, before then.

Trump and Pompeo claim that TikTok is a threat because it is under the control of the Chinese government. According to Pompeo, users are unsuspectingly “feeding data directly to the Chinese Communist Party, their national security apparatus – [it] could be their facial recognition pattern, it could be information about their residence, their phone numbers, their friends, who they’re connected to”.

TikTok protests that these claims are unfounded. Data from its 80 million American users, it says, is stored in the US and backed up in Singapore; it would never be passed on to the Chinese authorities even if they requested it. “When it comes to safety and security, we’re building the safest app because we know it’s the right thing to do,” insists Vanessa Pappas, TikTok’s US general manager.

Certainly, TikTok has gone out of its way to demonstrate its independence. When China passed its controversial new security law for Hong Kong, TikTok announced that it would cease to operate in the territory. It has also hired an American, Kevin Mayer, as its chief executive.

But the fact remains that its parent company, ByteDance, is based in China, where Zhang Yiming was recently honoured by the Communist Party for “resolutely upholding the party’s leadership”.

According to an expert on China, Martin Thorley, ByteDance should be seen as part of a “latent network” of companies which run themselves, but depend on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for their existence.

“So, if and when the CCP want to pull on the leash, those companies have no choice but to do as they are told – there is no other way.” China even has a law requiring companies to co-operate with its security services if asked to do so.

In California, a student called Misty Hong has launched a lawsuit accusing TikTok of misusing her data. She claims she downloaded the app, but did not create an account – only to find months later that the company had created an account for her and “surreptitiously” sent videos she never intended to publish to servers in China.

But some believe that Trump has political motives, which are nothing to do with security. For one thing, he is engaged in a trade war and wants to do Chinese companies as much damage as possible. For another, TikTok is largely used by young liberals who oppose his policies.

Is it dangerous to use TikTok?

Second thoughts

Some say, yes. No matter how independent TikTok claims to be, it has to do the Chinese government’s bidding, and it has been suspiciously secretive about how its algorithms work. China’s security services are notorious for engaging in hacking and cyber attacks, and it is inconceivable that they would not find a way of using data from tens of millions of Americans to their advantage.

Others argue that data belonging to teenagers messing around is hardly likely to interest Chinese spies. It is much more likely that Trump wants to increase economic pressure on China, and is simply using security concerns as an excuse. He has chosen TikTok as a highly visible target so that he can be seen to be acting tough in the run-up to the US elections.

You Decide

  1. If you could only have one app on your phone, which would it be?
  2. Under what circumstances should a government be allowed to interfere in a media company?

Activities

  1. Make a TikTok video either supporting or opposing Trump’s threatened ban.
  2. Imagine that you are the head of a company which has been asked to hand over all its information about its clients to the government. Write a letter explaining why you refuse to do so.

Some People Say...

“I have been asked what would I ban immediately if I could: advertising.”

Vivienne Westwood, British fashion designer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that being banned in the US would be disastrous for TikTok, especially since it has already been banned from its biggest market, India. A US presence gives TikTok not only millions of customers, but enormous prestige; if it were closed down, it would lose the “reigning queen of TikTok”, Charli D’Amelio, whose dance videos have brought her over 75 million followers.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether it would really be possible for Trump to stop TikTok operating in the US. One approach might be to order Apple and Google to stop carrying it in their app stores, and delete it from existing customers’ phones – but the tech giants would probably resist that. Another way would be to tell local internet service providers to cut off access to TikTok’s servers – but that would be difficult to enforce.

Word Watch

Secretary of State
The US government official in charge of foreign policy. Pompeo, who was formerly head of the CIA, has held the post since April 2018.
Zhang Yiming
Aged 36, he is believed to be the ninth-richest person in China, worth $13 billion (£10bn).
Curb
Restrain. As a noun, it means part of a horse’s bridle.
New security law
The law, which came into force a month ago, gives the police power to arrest anyone whose behaviour they consider subversive.
Latent network
Concealed. It comes from a Latin verb meaning “to lie hidden”.
Surreptitiously
Secretly or dishonestly. It derives from a Latin verb meaning “to seize something by stealth”.
Young liberals
When Trump held a rally in Tulsa last month, TikTok users claimed to have signed up for tickets they had no intention of using, resulting in an embarrassing number of empty seats.

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