Platforms are so powerful, their names are verbs: Google, Uber, Instagram, Netflix.
For years, the dominance of American technology companies has benefited the United States economically. It also offers an advantage in a less obvious area – national security.
Tech companies collect incredible amounts of data about their users. They know where we travel, who our friends are and what we watch. The government wants to use this data for surveillance, law enforcement and espionage. So they hack, hoard, steal and buy it. For many years, the United States had an advantage over other countries. With court approval, the government can require social media giants, based in the US and subject to US law, to hand over data about users.
“We have this advantage that we think will last forever,” said Bruce Schneier, a security expert and Harvard fellow.
Then TikTok appeared. The social media app, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, has over a billion users. TikTok says that number includes about 150 million Americans. Under China’s authoritarian state, the government has far-reaching control over technology companies and their data. U.S. officials worry that China will use TikTok to advance its interests and collect Americans’ personal information. One Republican called it “spy bubble in your phone.”
TikTok is the latest bright spot in the two nations’ struggle for supremacy. Last week, TikTok said US officials had presented two options for ownership in China: Sell the app or risk a nationwide ban. This morning, lawmakers will question TikTok’s chief executive, Shou Chew, about the app’s ties to China.
Today, I’ll explain the war over TikTok and how the US is trying to use the app to its advantage.
This war is ostensibly about data: who controls it and determines how it appears on TikTok. The US has two main reasons for concern.
The first is the threat of Chinese spies. BuzzFeed found that ByteDance engineers in China accessed private data of US users. ByteDance also acknowledged that employees, including two in China, spied on journalists and get their IP address, but said that the company leadership did not sign off and the employees were fired. Despite ByteDance’s close ties to China, TikTok has denied that it has provided data to the government.
Second, ByteDance can use TikTok’s algorithm to influence Americans. TikTok accused of censoring videos about politics sensitive topic for Chinasuch as the independence of Tibet and the Tiananmen massacre.
“Sapna Maheshwari, a Times reporter who covers TikTok, said a Chinese company owns what has become America’s number one cultural producer. In the future, the lawmakers said, it’s easy to imagine how China could use TikTok to shape Americans’ attitudes about Taiwan — or a US presidential campaign.
The US is increasing efforts to limit the power of TikTok. The federal government and more than half of the states have banned TikTok from government devices and networks. Britain, Canada and Belgium have done the same. India has completely banned this app. Now the US is also threatening a nationwide ban.
How likely is a ban?
Donald Trump tried to ban TikTok in 2020, but the judges rejected his attempt. The government is trying again, though it’s unclear exactly how the ban will be implemented. There is no precedent for US restrictions on such a large app.
One approach favored by some lawmakers is to remove TikTok from the Apple and Google app stores, and make it unavailable on US mobile phone networks. But the government can’t reach the user’s phone to delete the app. Those who already have it can still access TikTok, although users can’t download updates to the app, which could eventually render it unusable.
Any ban faces legal and political hurdles, including questions about First Amendment protections and the potential to anger millions of TikTok users by stepping in. presidential election year.
The US may be threatening an injunction to force another outcome in its favor – the sale of TikTok to an American company. TikTok and the United States previously negotiated one. However, the road is murky. China is unlikely to approve the sale. And if it does, it’s unclear who will buy the app, which could be worth $50 billion, according to some analysts. The sale could also raise antitrust concerns among potential pursuers like Microsoft.
The power of a threat
Even if a ban never happens, the threat of a ban still matters. The Biden administration is using the specter of further restrictions to convey a hard line on China. Lawmakers on both sides are likely to clarify that position in a hearing today.
The episode is the latest in a larger battle between two world powers vying for dominance. In this competition, data is a valuable source of economic and political influence.
“If you can control the data, you can have influence,” says Joseph Nye, a political scientist.
China has known this for many years. The country has banned apps like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and operates a tightly controlled internet that isolates its citizens from the rest of the world. The United States is now threatening to use China’s tactics against it, effectively using private companies as a national asset and restricting access to information as a form of punishment.
Chew, CEO of TikTok, is is expected to speak to Congress today that the app is a vehicle for promoting soft power — a “prism through which the rest of the world can experience American culture.” But the US has made it clear that it is more concerned with the hard power of data.
“TikTok is the first platform that really competes with these giant American tech companies,” Sapna said. “The signal the government is sending is: Never mind.”
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