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The TikTok Ban in Context

The TikTok affair is unimportant when compared to Trump’s general tariffs and high-cost trade war against Huawei. What is our long-run goal with respect to China?

Donald Trump recently issued an executive order banning TikTok on the grounds that it was necessary to deal with the national emergency he had declared in an earlier executive order. He says he is concerned that TikTok might turn user’s “information such as location data and browsing and search histories” over to the Chinese government. Trump does not site evidence of TikTok having shared data with China and TikTok says they have never shared user data with the Chinese government or censored content at its request. Furthermore, Kevin Meyer, CEO of TikTok and COO of its parent company Byte Dance, is an American, and TikTok US user data is not stored in China.

TikTok publishes a transparency report on government information requests and the report ending the second half of 2019 shows that the US government made 100 requests for information on 107 accounts, and 82% of those resulted in the transfer of data. Only India, with 302 requests on 408 accounts 90% of which made data transfers, requested more than the US. (Facebook received 51,121 US requests during the same period).

The format of the data TikTok reports to the police is shown below. Its terms of service note that the company may also send law enforcement logs of a user’s videos, comments, and interactions (source) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Homeland Security actively monitored TikTok for signs of unrest during the George Floyd protests. It seems they are cooperating with the US government.

Leaked document showing how TikTok provides user data to police. (Screenshot by Business Insider)

This background and Trump’s track record convince me that the TikTok ban was politically motivated—he wants to seem “tough” on China and get revenge for the way TikTok users tricked his campaign into projecting huge crowds for his disastrous Tulsa campaign rally.

Regardless, let’s zoom out.

The TikTok affair is unimportant when compared to Trump’s general tariffs and high-cost trade war against Huawei. What is his goal for US-China relations in general and for the Internet in particular? Is he seeking total self-sufficiency and independence from China? A bifurcated Internet?

When considering the cost of reciprocal tariffs, the supply chains for manufactured goods, and the Chinese market for US goods like iPhones, it is clear that financial and industrial disengagement from China would be an economic disaster for both China and the US.

The Internet is already bifurcating. China already has more Internet users than the US, Russia, Mexico, Germany, UK, France, and Canada combined, and the US trade war on Chinese technology has accelerated its push toward self-reliance. China is also innovating—Huawei, Tencent, and Xiaomi are among Derwent’s top 100 innovators and China has passed the US as the top scientific publishing nation in the world.

The Internet was conceived of and has served as a tool for collaboration, and existential global threats of economic inequality, climate change, pandemics and biological and other weapons require global collaboration. We need them, and they need us.

Let me be clear—there are no good guys here. China bans Facebook and Twitter, plays dirty tricks on the Internet, and imprisons and surveils citizens, but we seem to be caught in a prisoner’s dilemma game in which both sides have defected, and that could be fatal.

There may not be a way out of our dilemma, but our recent relations with Cuba suggest a strategy worth trying. President Obama published a new Cuba policy and began rapprochement negotiations. He visited Cuba and made several Internet-related announcements, but the response was disappointing while Raúl Castro was in charge. His successor, Miguel Díaz-Canel, is a pro-Internet engineer and there may have been an opportunity for change when he replaced Castro if Trump had continued President Obama’s policy, but that did not happen. Trump has made no substantive Internet-related policy changes regarding Cuba, but his politically-motivated rhetoric and Cuba Internet Task Force have assured continued hostility.

We will never know how Díaz-Canel would have reacted had Trump continued President Obama’s policy, but the outcome could not have been worse for the Cuban people or better for the expansion of China’s Digital Silk Road.

Whether we try the sort of engagement Obama tried with Cuba or something else, we cannot do it alone—we must work with like-minded allies, which is surely not Trump’s way.

It’s time for a change.

Update Aug 26, 2020:

TikTok has answered Trump’s executive ban and filed a law suit challenging it on the grounds that they were denied due process. They say they have never shared data with the Chinese, opened their publishing algorithm to show there has been no censorship, employ many Americans, provide a platform that is used by Americans for expression and income, and more.

While the suit asserts that TikTok was banned without due process—claiming that the Administration has “ignored their extensive efforts to address its concerns,” I wonder about the First Amendement guarantee of press freedom. TikTok is a publisher. What is the essential difference between banning TikTok without presenting evidence that it posed a threat to national security and banning the Washington Post because it had published or might one day publish fake news that undermined national security?

In another twist, it turns out that Microsoft had been negotiating to purchase TikTok, and shortly before issuing the ban, Trump said the U.S. Treasury should collect a “very substantial” portion of the sale price. That sounds like a mob shakedown—if you don’t sell your company and give me cut I will shut it down leaving you with nothing. I can see the tweet—“I got the Chinese to sell their company to Microsoft, created THOUSANDS of American jobs, stopped espionage and got a cut for the taxpayers as well.”

Update May 27, 2021

Comparatech Editor Paul Bischoff points out that Trump’s executive order set a deadline of 45 days, but it was largely ignored and is techcally still in play. He reports that US national security officials are in talks with TikTok’s parent company ByteDance about data security and preventing US user data from being accessed by the Chinese government. In the meantime, TikTok was the most downloaded app in the first quarter of 2021 and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee unanimously passed a bill that would ban U.S. federal workers from downloading the TikTok onto U.S. government devices. This puts President Biden in a political bind. Young voters like TikTok but the President is concerned about China’s economic and political power. That being said, TikTok is insignificant in the long run—we need to learn to cooperate and coexist with China in the face of global challenges like climate change, epidemics and economic inequality.

By Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State University

He has been on the faculties of the University of Lund, Sweden and the University of Southern California, and worked for IBM and the System Development Corporation. Larry maintains a blog on Internet applications and implications at cis471.blogspot.com and follows Cuban Internet development at laredcubana.blogspot.com.

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Nicely done Anthony Rutkowski  –  Aug 26, 2020 2:39 PM

However, it seems futile to attribute any rationality to someone like Trump who - as even his family note - is totally narcissistic and unhinged.  The ultimate challenge going forward is dealing with duality of all personal communication networks for both beneficial and harmful purposes by end users themselves.

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