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  1. Democracy
3 August 2020

Why time is running out for TikTok in the United States

National security concerns blur with political self-interest in the Trump administration's threat to ban the Chinese-owned app.  

By Emily Tamkin

One of the many quirks of Donald Trump’s presidency is the conflation of matters of national security with business interests and personal or party politics.

Until recently, the most obvious example was Nord Stream 2, a new gas pipeline running from Russia across the Baltic Sea to Europe. There are legitimate reasons for the United States to warn Europe generally and Germany in particular not to go ahead with the project: Russia has cut off gas before. But the Trump administration has also encouraged European countries to buy more liquefied natural gas from the United States, and Trump has accused Germany of being “captive” to Russia.

In this context, was European security, US business interests or Trump’s desire to chastise German chancellor Angela Merkel the main priority for the president? And if it was a combination of the three, which was the driving factor for the US position?

In recent weeks, however, a newly stark, one might even say viral, example of this phenomenon has emerged: TikTok – an app on which users share videos featuring dances, jokes and lessons on social justice. On August 1, Trump told reporters he was ready to ban the app either via executive order or emergency economic powers.

[see also: Teenagers are turning to TikTok not just for dance clips, but for urgent political debate]

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The administration is presenting the ban as a matter of national security and would come at a time when it has already escalated its rhetoric and action against China. TikTok is a subsidiary of ByteDance, which is based in Beijing, raising questions of privacy, security, and censorship (TikTok reportedly had moderators censor videos that made mention of subjects sensitive in China).

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[see also: Is TikTok really as much of a security threat as Huawei?]

And, in fairness, concern over the app is bipartisan. Last year, Chuck Schumer, a Democratic senator from New York, and Tom Cotton, a Republican senator from Arkansas, wrote to the then acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire. “Security experts have voiced concerns that China’s vague patchwork of intelligence, national security, and cybersecurity laws compel Chinese companies to support and cooperate with intelligence work controlled by the Chinese Communist Party,” the letter read. Schumer reiterated his concern over TikTok again over this past weekend, reminding Americans; “I have been very opposed to TikTok… I have urged that TikTok be closed down in America.”

But Trump’s threat to ban TikTok has raised eyebrows, too. It comes weeks after reports that TikTok users undermined his rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma by registering to attend and then not showing up. And the president has repeatedly pushed the view that social media companies more widely are biased against conservatives.

In May this year, Trump tweeted: “The Radical Left is in total command & control of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Google. The Administration is working to remedy this illegal situation. Stay tuned, and send names & events.” The president has reportedly even looked into establishing a panel to investigate this anti-conservative bias.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), responding to Trump’s comments in May, warned that such action could easily violate the companies’ first amendment rights under the US constitution. The ACLU made similar comments on Saturday (1 August), tweeting, “Banning an app like TikTok, which millions of Americans use to communicate with each other, is a danger to free expression and technologically impractical.” To truly address privacy concerns, the tweet thread continued, “Congress must ensure that ANY company that services US consumers cannot hand over our data to any government without a warrant or equivalent. Letting the president selectively ban platforms isn’t the solution.”

[see also: Twitter, the New York Times and why cancel culture is not about free speech]

None of this is to say that any ban would use national security to get back at teens, limit free speech or score points against the left. It’s to say that, because of the particularities of this administration, it’s hard to remove the doubt that national security concerns and political self-interest are running into one another.

One potential method of allaying this concern would be if ByteDance sold TikTok’s US enterprise. While Trump downplayed that possibility on Friday (31 July), Microsoft said Sunday it would continue to pursue a purchase after consultation with the president and recognising his concerns. If successful, that, at least, would indicate where the president’s real interest in the app lies.