The TikTok war

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TikTok is a Chinese video-sharing social networking service owned by ByteDance, a Beijing-based Internet technology company founded in 2012 by Zhang Yiming. It is used to create short music, lip-sync, dance, comedy and talent videos of 3 to 15 seconds, and short looping videos of 3 to 60 seconds. TikTok is such a breakthrough product. First, humans like video. Second, TikTok’s video creation tools were far more accessible and inspiring for non-professional videographers. The crucial missing piece, though, is that TikTok isn’t really a social network.
The TikTok social media platform has around 800 million users throughout the world. Designed for the amusement of teenagers, it also has a growing political dimension. For example, it was very actively used in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. There, it has also been accused of undermining the current Trump campaign. Interestingly, TikTok is not available in China, although the similar Douyin, from which TikTok emerged for the rest of the world, is available.
Ever since July 2020, as the idea of banning TikTok in the United States has shifted from a fringe idea to a seeming inevitability those opposed to the idea and those in support seem to be talking past each other. The reasons for this disconnect go beyond the usual divisions in tech, culture, and national security: what makes TikTok so unique is that it is the culmination of two trends: one about humans and the Internet, and the other about China and ideology.
Salvatore Babones of Foreign Policy Magazine wrote that at first glance, it may seem ridiculous that the United States Treasury’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States would be investigating a Chinese app that is primarily used by teenagers to post silly dance videos (though it does sometimes host serious political content as well). In July, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News that Americans should only use TikTok “if you want your private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.” It’s not just the GOP administration lashing out, either; the Democratic National Committee has also previously issued warnings to campaign staff not to use TikTok on their work phones, citing how much data is gathered.
For that reason, TikTok will likely be only the first of an entire string of Chinese apps that face banning from key markets. Apart from the negative impact on China’s reputation, the TikTok ban could very well have negative consequences for the technological development of the People’s Republic. More stunning yet, the geo-technological fallout from the TikTok war goes much further than the possible impact of the bans that are starting to be imposed on the app.
The ban was first issued in India in which some 100 million downloads in 2020. Andres Ortega, Senior research fellow at the Elcano Royal Institute in Spain stated that the official reason given by the Indian government for banning this and another 58 Chinese apps is that it is “prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India, defense of India, security of state and public order.” Most specifically, it accuses the Chinese apps of the ability to pass on user-generated data to the Chinese government.
According to Andres Ortega, under such circumstances, the broad-based ban in India, which includes some notable ones such as WeChat, the Alibaba browser, the Weibo microblogging platform, the Clash of Kings strategy game, as well as mapping applications, cannot come as a surprise. TikTok, which for several months has been headed by a United States former director of Disney, denies this. It states that it stores its data in the United States, with a back-up copy in Singapore. Indeed, to date, nobody has produced evidence to the contrary.
However, just as the UK government has now done on banning Huawei from its 5G networks, the Indian government is not prepared to expose its citizens to any Chinese data sucking shenanigans until incontrovertible evidence has been found. For an understandable reason, it prefers a precautionary path. Never mind that most actions occurring in China regarding data management, including the social scoring system, imbue little to no confidence in other nations that China follows proper data privacy procedures.
Andres Ortega noted that India is an essential market for the technological development of China, although not in terms of income. For example, last year it accounted for less than 1% of ByteDance’s global revenues. But revenue generation is unlikely to be the goal for a country running on a lot of “funny money.” Data access is the real currency. And here, it matters greatly that last year, six of the 10 most downloaded apps in India were Chinese.
Peter Navarro, Professor of Economics and Public Policy at University of California-Irvine argued that to be sure, there is also an element of techno-nationalism at play in India. Equipped with impressive software skills among its engineers, the country wants to develop its own homegrown industry in this area. The ban against the Chinese apps has helped give India’s app industry a boost.
Peter Navarro stressed that in the wake of the Indian ban at the end of June, more bans may be ahead elsewhere. The United States Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has hinted that his country is studying a similar prohibition owing to the threat to national security. A “domino effect” of this nature would undermine the aspirations of a made-in-China “digital Silk Road” that Beijing is trying to push. There is a clear and legitimate perception not just in India that China’s real purpose, as with the Belt and Road initiative, is to encircle India as well as other countries.
Ben Thompson noted that Apps are a flourishing component of online services. Indeed, they are one of the central areas of rivalry between the United States and China, with Europe also being dragged into the conflict. Perhaps the most important business and strategic dimension is that apps are also a major source of data for developing Artificial Intelligence, including facial recognition technology. That is why the dark vision of the Chinese trying to take their hyper-invasive Orwellian “social scoring” strategies global are by no means far-fetched. Never mind that apps also play a major role when it comes to setting global technology standards, a race in which China is extremely active. In short, there is much more at stake than a simple application for teenagers.