TikTok, banned in India, and facing a ban in the USA unless it is sold to an American buyer, faces a tough battle ahead. But, what does this mean for Government control on the internet.
Before it was banned by India, TikTok was one of the fastest growing social sharing apps in the world. Allowing its users to create and share 15 second videos, the platform became a teen favourite across the world. In India, the regular users of TikTok go beyond teens. We have all been regaled with grandmothers in saris dancing to classic movie numbers in the middle of the great Indian outdoors, in addition to other manifestations of talent from across the nation. However, the platform has also been used for other not so benign activities. As late as last month, there were discussions in parliament on the use of TikTok to spread fake news and ‘malicious’ content.
Even before the border clash with China that left fatalities on both sides, there had been calls to severely regulate TikTok, if not outright ban it. The main reason being, as per Chinese law, all social media platforms are bound to share data with the Chinese government, and this could have major implications not just for individual privacy, but also for national security. When India banned TikTok and 58 other apps on grounds that the activities that they indulged in were “prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order” it also accused these apps of “stealing and surreptitiously transmitting users’ data in an unauthorised manner to servers which have locations outside India. The compilation of these data, its mining and profiling by elements hostile to national security and defence of India, which ultimately impinges upon the sovereignty and integrity of India, is a matter of very deep and immediate concern which requires emergency measures.”
The Trump administration in the USA, which has had a pugilistic relationship with China so far, is mulling a similar course of action. For Trump, China represents a form of capitalism aimed at beggaring the USA. He has always believed that the Chinese Government has consistently bent the rules to make Chinese products more competitive in the international market, and it is this that has had an impact on American jobs. Mr Trump, not the most rational of all leaders, has had a bee in his bonnet about China from before he became President. He has been systematically imposing sanctions on Chinese imports to the USA, and his actions and the Chinese reactions have almost led the world to a trade war. After a series of reports that suggested that American sanctions against China have hurt the Americans more than the Chinese, there was some respite to the standoff, but it seems now that Mr Trump has Chinese app economy in his cross hairs—with both TikTok and WeChat in the line of fire.
Last week, a Trump executive order stated that all transactions with these platforms need to cease within the next 45 days. In the order he noted that the platform’s data collection allows the Chinese Communist party to access the personal and proprietary information of Americans—including government employees, posing a danger to the country. He further accused the platform of censoring content that may be against the Communist Government in Beijing. Interestingly, the American President’s order also said that the ban, that will come into effect in 45 days, will be against any transactions with Byte Dance, the parent company of TikTok. And, this means that to be considered ‘safe’ again TikTok needs to be sold, preferably to an American corporation. Right now, a host of companies ranging from Microsoft to Twitter are all talking to Byte Dance to see if they can buy TikTok and allow it to operate.
There are two issues here, both equally important. The first is that of large organisations—including Governments—to have granular access to our data, and help make predictions about the way we behave, or trigger us to behave in a particular way. And this is a worrying concern that many privacy activists have raised over the last few years. The second is the ability of the United States to order the stripping of the ownership of a company from one entity and ensuring its sale to another. This is the kind of behaviour that Imperial masters used to indulge in—strip assets from local powers, and hand them over to their own people. The forced sale of TikTok definitely feels like a hark back to a past where western powers would call the shots.
While there are grave issues of the way data can be misused by the Chinese Government, this is a problem that exists with every government, or corporation, that may have control on your data. Banning TikTok, as India has done is a suitable response to that kind of a threat. However, the forced sale of a popular app from a Chinese company to an American company has grave implications not just for big tech, but all companies. National security is a term that covers a multitude of sins. Be it steel manufacturing, or telecommunications, pharmaceutical research and development, or food industries—all of them impact national security. Are companies going to be threatened with sale, if their government does not see eye to eye with the American government? And, while the Chinese Government may have ruffled a bunch of feathers, what has happened to TikTok—could happen to any corporation. And, this does not augur well for international trade.
The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology, and audiences. She is a writer, columnist, visiting faculty, and filmmaker.