Trump’s TikTok double standard

Turning Points
Bloomberg

To live in America is to be surveilled every second of every day by phone apps harvesting data on how you look and dress, your tastes, habits and location—and those of your family, friends and acquaintances. TikTok is one of them. WeChat is another.

But they're the only apps the White House has threatened to close down for this kind of egregious intrusion, even if TikTok has been thrown a lifeline by Microsoft's potential purchase of its U.S. operations, and President Donald Trump decision not to oppose it.

It's all because their owners are in China. The assumption, therefore, is that user data on the two apps might end up in the hands of the Chinese state, which could use it to obtain information about Americans, keep tabs on opponents of the regime abroad and launch global disinformation campaigns.

Those fears are not unfounded. When the Chinese Communist Party asks companies to share data, "no" is generally not an acceptable answer. But there's an obvious remedy that doesn't involve China-specific targeting: Stop the mass plundering of personal data by everyone.

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"Instead of playing a game of whack-a-mole against a rotating cast of Chinese tech companies, the U.S. would be wise to spend more time developing legislation and standards for how all companies, regardless of country of origin, protect online privacy and secure data," writes Samm Sacks, a cybersecurity expert at New America and a New Economy Forum delegate.

When I lived in China, I lost almost all of my U.S. social media channels as the Great Firewall grew higher, and ended up communicating with family and friends there and overseas almost exclusively through WeChat. Now that I'm in the U.S., I'm watching the American version of the firewall taking shape, and will soon lose touch with just about all of my Chinese friends unless I can find a workaround.

Many mainland Chinese in America will be harmed if Trump carries out his latest threat: WeChat isn't just their vital link with loved ones at home, it's an essential tool for everything from online payments to wealth management, healthcare and hotel booking. 

Those who argue that WeChat had this coming may have a point, though. It has been reported that WeChat monitors and censors users at the behest of the party-state, not just inside China but outside, too.

TikTok has been caught censoring users as well. But why does an app that features kids lip-syncing videos and families goofing around in their living rooms need to so minutely track the browsing habits of users, down to their keystroke rhythms and patterns? The simple answer is that this level of surveillance is pretty much standard for the industry.

But what's perhaps spookier about TikTok is that, unlike Facebook, its algorithms are designed to select and push videos, not simply share content among networks of friends. In other words, TikTok has more power over hearts and minds, and if it chose to exercise that influence for political purposes, it could conceivably turn an election.

Donald Trump

Photographer: Kevin Dietsch/UPI

But this is all theoretical. There's no evidence that TikTok has done anything of the sort. Meanwhile, critics see hypocrisy and double standards in the White House move. Some point out that U.S. technology companies have their own dark history of back-channeling with spy agencies, and that it's a bad look for a democracy to adopt China's authoritarian ways, closing down apps on dubious "national security" grounds.

Certainly, another scorched earth attack on China is a useful distraction for Trump, who's down in the polls as Covid-19 rampages out of control in his country, killing close to 1,000 Americans every day.

Will China retaliate? A better question is does it need to. The White House decision itself is potentially damaging enough to U.S. companies operating in China. Apple won't sell many iPhones there if its App Store has to drop WeChat. Starbucks will lose legions of Chinese customers if its cashiers can't swipe WeChat QR codes.

Nor should TikTok's U.S. competitors get too smug about the potential demise of a competitor with the smash-hit app of the decade, according to Bloomberg Opinion columnist David Fickling. Their day of reckoning may soon be at hand.

"It would be better for Silicon Valley's social media companies if they could hold on a little longer to their fraying image as innocuous providers of cat videos and inspirational quotes," Fickling writes, "rather than under-regulated behemoths with the power to sway electorates."

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