On the 6th of August, President Trump signed an executive order effectively banning the Chinese owned social media app, TikTok, from operating in the United States, with the order coming into effect after a period of 45 days. The Trump administration has justified the move on the grounds of public safety, it has claimed that the video sharing site presents a serious national security threat which, in the words of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, puts “data in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party“. However, with the 2020 Presidential election rapidly approaching, questions have been raised over the motivation for Trump’s decision to ban the social media site, with critics claiming it is a move more rooted in Trump’s anti-China rhetoric than in substantiated national security concerns.
“It’s Spying on you”
Trump has repeatedly invoked the 2017 Chinese National Security Law as proof that data held by both TikTok and their parent company Bytedance would be accessible to Chinese intelligence services. The law holds Chinese companies legally responsible for providing access, cooperation or support for Chinese intelligence gathering. The 2017 Law was used to justify the ban on TikTok in India, it was also used in both the US and UK in campaigns against Huawei building 5G networks.
TikTok have responded to these allegations claiming that as TikTok does not operate in China (the Chinese version of the app is called ‘Douyin’ which is highly censored and restricted ) the authorities supposedly cannot access TikTok’s data. For example, in July, TikTok pulled out of Hong Kong after the implementation of the National Security Law meant tech companies could be obligated to comply with China’s surveillance. The app has always said that it would not be available in China and this move perhaps demonstrates that there is truth in what the platform has claimed.
This does not necessarily mean that Chinese intelligence services will be unable to access the data held by TikTok. When asked in an email exchange, the Guardian Technology Editor, Alex Hern responded “ultimately, what we are talking about here is espionage, rather than business”. The evidence suggests that if China were to access TikTok’s data it would be through illegal espionage and without their consent. A CIA report reached a similar verdict; “it is possible that the Chinese intelligence authorities could intercept data” but, interestingly, “there is no evidence they have done so”.
Chinese intelligence services have already proved numerous times that they are capable of hacking into the databases of US and UK companies, most recently Chinese state affiliated hackers have exploited and accessed data collected in response to Covid-19. While there may be some truth in that as a Chinese company, Bytedance is more vulnerable to infiltration of data, it is by no means only Chinese owned companies who have been proven to be susceptible to Chinese state affiliated hacking.
In regards to the ban enforced by Trump, it has to be said that being wary of apps that collect large amounts of data is justified and sensible. Furthermore, Bytedance’s link to China , even if it is just the location of their headquarters, does warrant a certain amount of concern, especially with China’s established history of cybersecurity attacks. However, as concluded by Alex Hern, “After a certain point, this sort of thinking veers from concern, through paranoia, to conspiracy and racism, and I think it’s worth knowing where that point is before raising the spectre, rather than after.”
Another area Trump has expressed concern over is the power that moderators on TikTok hold over content on the platform. Access to the ‘For You Page’ is the fastest way for a video to reach users, however, leaked documents have revealed that complex guidelines are in place to ensure that strict control is maintained over which videos are able to reach this page. ‘The Intercept’ found that videos featuring less attractive, disabled or LGBTQ+ people had been removed or hidden.
TikTok has also instructed its moderators to remove any content that appears to damage the ‘national honour’ of the Chinese state. This vague term has facilitated the censorship of videos on a huge variety of topics from the Hong Kong protests to a general ban of “criticism/attack towards policies, social rules of any country, such as constitutional monarchy, monarchy, parliamentary system, separation of powers, socialism system, etc”.
While TikTok have claimed that this has been done to keep the content of its videos light, the widespread censorship of political issues employed on the app comes dangerously close to infringing on freedom of speech. Trump is right to say this moderation is a problem. Both the exclusion of disabled and LGBT people and the censorship of content which criticizes authority undoubtedly undermines key democratic principles of inclusion and freedom of expression.
The question which now needs to be asked is whether this censorship is being carried out with conventional motives in mind (ie ‘keeping the content light’ as claimed) or whether it is a symptom of operating under the Chinese state and an example of ‘self-censorship’. TikTok themselves have stated that they have not been asked to censor content by the Chinese government and would not do so even if they were.
However, Bytedance, the company that owns TikTok is based in Beijing meaning that certain pressures are placed upon it to adhere to the established rules surrounding censorship. As explained by the Guardian Technology Editor, “in the vast majority of cases, [the Chinese government] doesn’t tell organisations to censor, because it doesn’t need to – they do it themselves… they censor things they think would get them in trouble, if they guess wrong, they get in trouble, and others learn from their errors.”
Therefore, it is very difficult for a Chinese company not to follow the rules laid out by the state and seems to put into doubt the ability of TikTok to remain independent from Chinese pressure, especially when, as revealed by The Intercept, directives around censorship of content originated in the Bytedance offices in China. As Hern points out, “the fact that the censorship is (I believe) emergent rather than directed doesn’t lessen the harm but does change how we understand it.”
Censorship of information should be seen as a potential threat to free thinking and freedom of information, as TikTok and China’s soft influence grows around the globe, censorship and self-censorship may become a greater danger. Therefore, while this may not constitute a national security threat in itself, it does represent an expansion of Chinese ‘self-censorship’ reaching into the United States. The ability to shape who is represented on our social media screens and the exclusion of disabled and LGBTQ people helps to normalize a society where these people are ignored and neglected. Despite this, it is difficult to argue that this justifies the extensive action taken by the President.
“The China Virus”
If the legitimacy of TikTok as a security threat remains inconclusive it leads us to ask what does Trump have to gain from banning the app? Trump is by no means the first US President to use a ‘supposed’ national security threat as a political tool. The Trump Campaign has run anti-TikTok advertisements saying that the app is “spying on you” and highlights its links to China. Trump has used TikTok as a mechanism to demonstrate his anti-China stance and is prepared to escalate his anti-China campaign in anticipation of the election, it is seen as an issue where he can score points over Biden. He has attempted to deflect his poor handling of the novel Coronavirus by labelling it the “China Virus” and stating China “deliberately sent the Coronavirus to US”.
The Anti-Chinese sentiment prevalent in the Trump administration and its support base has manifested itself in the ‘Clean networks initiative’. This initiative seeks to remove all Chinese technologies from “telecoms carriers, cloud services, undersea cables, apps, and app stores” perhaps unsurprisingly there is little recourse for how this would be achieved, nevertheless it plays into the rhetoric spewed by Trump and the strong distrust of China by many Trump voters. The spread of misinformation and fear mongering clearly serves to aid Trump’s campaign, according to a Reuters/ Ipsos Mori poll among Republicans, 69% backed the order but only 32% said they were familiar with the app, showing that even with limited knowledge, his support base approve of his actions. It is this support that has allowed Trump to act in the way that he has; based on rumour and paranoia and without sufficient evidence to justify an executive action that could have resounding effects beyond Trump’s presidency.
While the short-term effect of this order is the banning of TikTok, this path could lead to the so-called Balkanisation of the internet, when the global network is divided into smaller networks controlled by nation states, which could have serious implications for global internet freedoms. This has long been the case within China of course, the existence of the ‘Great Firewall’ has prevented many of the world’s most popular apps from accessing Chinese markets. If the US were to follow suit, then it could foreshadow a wider rupturing of the internet where nations can control what sites and apps their citizens can use.