The New Techno-War: How the U.S. is fighting TikTok


In recent months, a ban of the TikTok platform on the entire U.S. territory has been increasingly discussed.

The first talks about it began under Trump, in August 2020, when he signed an executive order that blocked all transactions of ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok. The logic behind the document was the need to bring order to media platforms. "The proliferation (of apps controlled by the Chinese government - Auth.) continues to threaten national security, foreign policy and the U.S. economy," the document said. Another decree then hit WeChat, a popular messenger in China, which was also banned from conducting transactions.

The pressure on TikTok only intensified under President Biden: the ByteDance administration was required to sell the app, or it would be banned in the United States.

Such a tough stance has been traditionally explained by national security considerations, i.e. that ByteDance's ownership of TikTok could give the Chinese authorities access to the personal data of 150 million American users, whom, of course, they would like to control in their home country.

U.S. authorities also do not like the algorithms of video recommendations of the platform, because, in their opinion, they can be used to promote the foreign policy goals of the PRC.

The situation is also fueled by publications in the media. For example, The Washington Post recently published an interview with a former TikTok employee who, according to him, had previously met with representatives of the US Congress to share his concerns that the company's strategy for protecting American user data was deeply flawed. He also said that he had presented evidence that could arouse lawmakers' suspicions about the app.

Earlier, the TikTok administration actively promoted a plan to restructure Project Texas, the implementation of which was to cost $1.5 billion. The plan was positioned as a way to eliminate the risk of data theft or misuse by the Chinese government. Now that strategy is in question.

That's convenient, isn't it? Especially considering the fact that the United States authorities have provided no evidence that the Chinese government has gained access to TikTok data or code.

Meanwhile, the wave of distrust of TikTok is gaining momentum around the world: following the United States, New Zealand has banned employees of its government agencies from using the application on work devices. Earlier, the possibility of such a ban was raised in the United Kingdom. Similar measures have been taken in Australia, Belgium, and Canada, as well as in the European Parliament and the European Commission.

The issue was not resolved solely with prohibitive measures. In Turkey, where the app was very popular (the country has the ninth largest number of TikTok users in the world, with about 30 million social media accounts), it was fined 1.75 million lira for weak data protection measures.

In the U.S., the rhetoric is heated to the limit - not for the first month, by the way. This February, Democratic Senator Michael Bennet called on Apple and Google to "kick" TikTok out of the app stores. "No company subject to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) dictates should have the power to accumulate such extensive data on the American people or curate content to nearly a third of our population," the senator wrote in a letter to Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai and Apple CEO Tim Cook.

Given the competition between TikTok and the Shorts section of the U.S. video hosting site YouTube, such statements by American politicians also look like clearing the market for local companies, which, by the way, are not doing very well. Google, for example, continues to lay off employees on a regular basis.

Nevertheless, if we consider this an example of lobbyism, the effect is more likely to be negative. The prohibition of TikTok can affect the entire economic chains. The American Forbes writes about it. The publication notes that the platform is a powerful and ever-growing mechanism to maintain economic activity, which U.S. residents regularly use to open a business and build a career, not just to watch funny videos, as it was in the early days of the site. TikTok helps attract customers, and many content creators have become mini-companies supported by dozens or even hundreds of employees, from PR people to financiers.

Forbes notes that more and more people are using the app as a search engine. It points to the fact that Google last year acknowledged an increase in the percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds who use TikTok instead of Google searches. So the platform competes not only with the video hosting site YouTube, but also may challenge the existence of Google as a whole, because traffic also generates profits for the company, including attracting advertisers, who, along with the audience can go in large numbers to the new site, which has already become the main tool for finding small distributors, non-branded and niche products.

Given the fact that technology companies in the U.S. have a huge lobbying resource, which has helped for many years to evade harsh regulation of their activities by the U.S. government, a prohibition campaign against TikTok may be quite logical. And if Donald Trump a priori supported his domestic business, then the Biden administration may well try to "kill two birds with one stone" by resolving the issue with the hated foreign competitor of American big tech companies and concentrating user data in the already established system of information exchange between the intelligence agencies and the American IT giants.