Trump’s TikTok Circus Will Have Lasting Consequences

The larger issues around China’s technological rise aren’t going away.

It’s been one hell of a week for TikTok. The company is scrambling to get the White House to approve a deal it struck with Oracle, designed to alleviate national security concerns the US government raised about TikTok’s Chinese ownership. While the company waits to see whether President Trump will accept the arrangement, the clock continues to run out on his deadline for a sale. Regardless of what happens to TikTok, one thing is already clear: Concerns about Chinese technology aren’t going away, and the United States is no more prepared to confront them now than it was when the saga over TikTok began.

The US Commerce Department announced Friday morning that TikTok, as well as WeChat, will be blocked from US mobile app stores starting Sunday, following two executive orders Trump signed in August. The orders compelled TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, to find an American buyer for the app by September 20, a deadline that was later extended to November 12. The US government says that TikTok’s data collection practices, combined with Chinese laws that require companies to cooperate with state intelligence services, are “creating unacceptable risks to our national security.”

In a statement, TikTok said it disagreed with the Commerce Department’s decision. “In our proposal to the US administration, we’ve already committed to unprecedented levels of additional transparency and accountability well beyond what other apps are willing to do, including third-party audits, verification of code security, and US government oversight of US data security,” the company wrote. “Further, an American technology provider would be responsible for maintaining and operating the TikTok network in the US, which would include all services and data serving US consumers.”

The US government has spent the last few years attacking Chinese tech companies like Huawei and ZTE over similar national security concerns, and it also forced the sale of the dating app Grindr. TikTok, though, was the first social media platform from China to gain a foothold in the United States, where it has 100 million users. The app’s rise attracted bipartisan attention from lawmakers last fall, who worried data collected by TikTok could end up in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.

As relations with China worsened amid the coronavirus pandemic, Trump and other White House officials began taking greater interest in the app. It was an opportunity for the administration to set an agenda for what information tech firms—including domestic ones—should be allowed to collect about Americans and under what circumstances. Instead, the White House treated TikTok like a geopolitical hot potato and failed to address any longer-term issues with privacy or data security. “The broader concern is that this is really a whack-a-mole approach,” says Michael Daniel, who heads the nonprofit Cyber Threat Alliance and served as cybersecurity coordinator under President Barack Obama.

From the beginning, Trump’s strategy for TikTok, like so many things, was messy and incoherent. For weeks, the president said that only selling the app to an American company would alleviate national security concerns. Now, the deal with Oracle is being described as merely a “partnership,” which caused Republican lawmakers to call for its rejection.

Other critics have been skeptical of ByteDance’s last-minute choice of Oracle instead of Microsoft—which until this weekend had been considered a leading contender to take over TikTok—because of the company’s cozy relationship with the Trump administration. Larry Ellison, Oracle’s cofounder, held a fundraiser for the president in February, and CEO Safra Catz also served on Trump’s transition team in 2016. Other statements by the president have raised more than a few eyebrows: At one point, Trump even suggested the US Treasury ought to receive “key money” for facilitating a deal for TikTok, evoking a flavor of corruption more common in countries like Russia and China. (The president acknowledged this week that lawyers informed him such a payment would be illegal.)

All along, the administration has failed to provide evidence that TikTok, which employs over 1,000 people in the United States, was doing anything particularly nefarious. The company, as well as outside security researchers, have said TikTok’s data collection practices are in line with those of similar domestic social media platforms. “Here we are banging on the table that we are the ones who have rule of law,” says Jason Healey, a senior research scholar at Columbia University specializing in cyber conflict. “Then where is the evidence?”

Daniel says it may be tricky for the US government to reveal details about specific threats, at least without jeopardizing intelligence methods. But, he says, the US government could compare TikTok against universal principles that every tech company operating in the country needs to follow. That would help convince Americans that TikTok’s behavior was somehow unique. The problem, though, is that the US government has never outlined any serious ideas for how digital data collection should be handled.

“Where’s the US position on this?” says Jim Lewis, who leads technology policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank. “We’ve been tongue-tied on these issues for a long time.” The US still lacks a national online privacy law, for example, a task Europe crossed off its to-do list ages ago. When it comes to preventing espionage, the ideas the US has put forward are also far from comprehensive. The State Department’s new “Clean Network” program proposes safeguarding the internet only by scrubbing it of Chinese corporations. That would do little, if anything, to stop the Chinese government from continuing to hack American institutions, especially those that fail to properly protect sensitive data.

Still, Lewis says that Trump’s TikTok crusade wasn’t entirely ineffective. It surprised the Chinese government, and proved to Beijing there would be a price to pay for behavior like stealing intellectual property from American companies. “One of the consequences is a company like ByteDance gets squeezed,” Lewis says. “If we’re ever going to get a handle on Chinese espionage, we’re going to have to look at things outside of the Chinese espionage world.”

But if the US wants to really counter China’s rising technology power, it also needs to tackle more than just privacy and security, says Megan Stifel, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative. “We really need an industrial strategy,” she says, which would include investment in things like education, helping to ensure the US remains a leader in industries like computer chips. “How do we really incentivize and build a workforce that is diverse and educated in some of these central areas?” At the moment, we’re not: Schools in the US are currently paralyzed by an ongoing pandemic, and a new report from the Social Progress Imperative finds the country lags behind almost all its peers on access to quality basic education.

Even if the US adopts a broader strategy for dealing with China over the long term, targeting individual companies like TikTok and WeChat will likely still be part of it, regardless of who is in the White House. The global internet is becoming increasingly fractured along both ideological and national lines, putting startups with global ambitions like ByteDance in the middle.

All Rights Reserved for Louise Matsakis

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