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The battle for TikTok

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PUBLISHED
March 17, 2024


KARACHI:

A bipartisan bill seeking to ban TikTok, the popular short-video sharing app owned by Chinese company ByteDance, has sailed through the US House of Representatives. The bill, referred to as “Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act”, seeks to empower the US President to banish any digital platform or app from American cyberspace on national security grounds. Next, the proposed law will be put to vote in the Senate. And if enacted, it would give TikTok’s owner 180 days to divest its shares to escape a nationwide ban.

The House vote was a landslide, with 352 ayes and only 65 nays. The bill was fast-tracked to a vote after receiving the nod from the Energy and Commerce Committee earlier this month. While the legislation doesn’t specifically mention TikTok, Congressmen singled out TikTok for criticism in their statements about the bill. “This is my message to TikTok: Break up with the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) or lose access to your American users,” said Committee Chair Mike Gallagher. “So long as it is owned by ByteDance and thus required to collaborate with the CCP, TikTok poses critical threats to our national security,” added Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi.

With over a billion users, TikTok is the 4th largest social media platform in the world by monthly active users. It’s double the size of Snapchat and quickly catching up to Instagram. The meteoric rise of this Chinese app particularly popular with ‘Gen Z’ appears to have not gone down well with the US because it threatens to challenge the dominance of similar American platforms. It is perhaps for this reason that the US has long toyed with the idea of banning TikTok. The app first faced an attempted ban from former President Donald Trump in 2020. The latest ban buzz was triggered by a testimony of FBI Director Christopher Wray who testified before Congress last year that TikTok is a tool of the Chinese government and “screams out with national security concerns.”

Wray told the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in March 2023 that the Chinese government could use the app to control software on millions of devices and spread propaganda, misinformation or influence Americans. “This is a tool that is ultimately within the control of the Chinese government – and it, to me, screams out with national security concerns,” Wray said. Other top US intelligence officials, including Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, CIA Director William Burns, and National Security Agency Director Paul Nakasone, were completely at one with Wray.

Interestingly however, most of these and similar other concerns were already addressed by TikTok Chief Executive Shou Zi Chew at an extremely hostile committee hearing in March last year, where lawmakers grilled him for five hours about China’s relationship with his company, data privacy, possible teen addiction to the app, and misinformation. The opening statement of the committee chair, Cathy McMorris-Rodgers, was enough to reveal that the Congressmen had already made up their mind vis-à-vis the app. “Your platform should be banned,” Rodgers said. “I expect today you’ll say anything to avoid this outcome.”

During the hearing, Chew repeatedly told the committee members that ByteDance is not owned or controlled by the Chinese government. TikTok “does not promote or remove content at the request of the Chinese government”, he added. “TikTok has never shared, or received a request to share, US user data with the Chinese government. Nor would TikTok honour such a request if one were ever made.”

To further allay data privacy fears, Chew also revealed a plan that will ensure “American data is stored on American soil by an American company, overseen by American personnel”. The $1.5 billion “Project Texas” would rely on contracts with the Texas-based tech company Oracle, Chew explained, using a “firewall that seals off protected user data from unauthorised foreign access”. However, the lawmakers remained unimpressed.

Chew sought to quash the “hypothetical” allegations that TikTok poses a national security threat to the US. “I think a lot of risks that are pointed out are hypothetical and theoretical risks,” he said. “I have not seen any evidence. I am eagerly awaiting discussions where we can talk about evidence.”

And it is true the US lawmakers have based their fears on hypotheses. Cybersecurity experts say that national security concerns surrounding TikTok remain a “hypothetical scenario” as the US hasn’t found evidence to corroborate its allegations.

America watchers believe the TikTok scrutiny stems from US fixation with China and anything and everything Chinese.

Yes. American politicians seem to be obsessed with China. At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on child safety last month, Senator Tom Cotton pressed TikTok’s 40-year-old Singaporean boss aggressively on his citizenship. “You often say that you live in Singapore,” Cotton said before demanding to know whether he had applied for citizenship in China. “Have you ever been a member of the Chinese Communist Party?” he then asked abruptly. “Senator! I’m Singaporean!” a weary Chew retorted. “No.”

While the US lawmakers brutally grilled the TikTok boss on data privacy, they conveniently ignore the unenviable record of Big Tech on this count, as Chew referred to Facebook, which has 2.2 billion users worldwide, over the Cambridge Analytica scandal of March 2018. The British consulting firm was allowed by Facebook to harvest personal data of tens of millions of its users for political advertising.

And this is not one of a kind incident. Countless US-based apps and data brokers gather huge amount of sensitive personal information and transfer it abroad.

Congressmen are particularly concerned about the possibility of Chinese government accessing data of 170 American users of TikTok. Paradoxically, they overlook how the US built its own unparalleled surveillance infrastructure with the help of Silicon Valley. The National Security Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation have been harvesting data, including audio, video, photographs, emails, and documents from the internal servers of nine major tech firms, according to a leaked security presentation obtained by The Washington Post and The Guardian in June 2013.

The classified programme, which involved “gross intrusion on privacy”, was codenamed PRISM. It involved every who’s who of Silicon Valley, such as Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple, who willingly participated in the program, according to the Post.

This leads to the conclusion that the motivation behind the ban attempt is not what Congressmen say. It appears to be part of a technological war the US has waged against China in its geopolitical pursuit.

This is the reason Beijing has reacted angrily. “Even though the US has not found evidence on how TikTok endangers its national security, it has never stopped going after TikTok,” China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a news briefing after the House vote.

Wang accused the US of “resorting to acts of bullying” when it could not succeed in fair competition, saying such practice would disrupt market operations, undermine investor confidence, and sabotage the global economic order. “This will eventually backfire on the US itself,” he said.

There are reasons to believe geopolitics is involved. Let’s see how.

India was the first country to ban TikTok in 2020, citing privacy and national sovereignty. However, this might not be the reason. It appeared to be a punitive action to deprive the Chinese app of 200 million Indian users after Indian soldiers received a drubbing in skirmishes with Chinese troops on their contentious border. At least 20 Indian border guards were bludgeoned to death in the clash that didn’t involve firearms. Two weeks after the deadly duel, India banished TikTok along with over 200 other Chinese apps from its cyberspace.

India, which vies for regional dominance, considers China a rival. And in pursuit of its ambitions, New Delhi receives unequivocal support from the US and its Western allies who, in turn, consider China a threat to their “rules based” world order. India is also a member of Quad, a quadrilateral military alliance cobbled up as part of efforts to contain China. Other members of the alliance are Australia, Japan and the US. India took the lead in banning TikTok and other key strategic allies of the US followed suit. All members of the so-called “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing network comprising Australia, Canada, the US, Britain and New Zealand have since banned the Chinese app from government devices. France, Belgium and the European Commission have announced similar bans.

“Bloc politics” is an important tool in the US foreign policy toolkit which it effectively uses for geopolitical objectives. Currently, its biggest objective is to stymie China’s rise as a potential economic and geopolitical challenger with a potential to upend the existing international order where the US has reigned as the unrivaled monarch since the end of Cold War. This coveted status, the US believes, gives it an absolute right over cutting-edge technologies, but China is unwilling to accept America’s technological dominance. And this lies at the heart of the US tech war against China.

This argument makes a lot of sense because TikTok could be as big a security concern as any other app on our smartphone. Top social media apps Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have been entangled in a slew of controversies since the 2016 US Presidential poll, but they were conveniently overlooked by Congressmen, perhaps due to their “American origin”. TikTok, on the other hand, has been under relentless scrutiny due to its “un-American origin” and its potential to challenge the global dominance of similar American services.

American tech capitalists might also have played a role in raising TikTok bogie in Congress. The Washington Post revealed in a March 2022 report that Facebook’s parent company, Meta, has been paying one of the most prominent Republican consulting firms, Targeted Victory, to plant op-eds and letters to the editor in major local and regional newspapers across the country to “get the message out that TikTok is the real threat, especially as a foreign-owned app.”

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