On Friday, President Trump told reporters that he plans on banning TikTok from operating in the US using executive powers. Trump administration officials have come out in support of the president’s plan to ban the app, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who said on Sunday that TikTok “cannot exist as it does.”
TikTok is a social media app that is wildly popular with America’s youth, with tens of millions of users in the US. The app is a video-sharing service with simple editing tools that allow users to create videos quickly and easily.
TikTok is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, and the common allegation against the app is that it is a tool of Chinese intelligence, and shares user data with the Chinese government. TikTok is also accused of censoring content that portrays the Chinese government negatively. For their part, TikTok denies the charge and says user data is not stored in China, and that the app has no obligation to share information with the Chinese government.
With US-China tensions increasing by the day, the TikTok ban could serve as another way for the Trump administration to confront Beijing. Besides the trade war and economic sanctions, the US has drastically increased its military activity in the Indo-Pacific in recent months. With Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent speech calling for a “new alliance of democracies” to oppose China, it seems the administration now views China as a Cold War adversary.
US officials cite national security as the reason to ban TikTok, but regardless of the motives, US tech companies will greatly benefit from the ban. Rumors of Microsoft buying TikTok from ByteDance surfaced in the media after President Trump’s comments. A report from The Wall Street Journal published on Sunday said that Microsoft and ByteDance were in talks for a possible deal before Trump’s comments, and now those talks are on hold.
The Journal reported that the administration had knowledge of the deal, with TikTok being sold to an American company being an acceptable outcome for the White House. Microsoft confirmed the Journal’s reporting and said in a blog post on Sunday that the company’s CEO had a talk with President Trump on the matter. The post also said Microsoft is interested in purchasing TikTok and is engaged in talks with ByteDance, and they plan on completing these discussions no later than September 15th.
Sources told The South Morning China Post that ByteDance founder Zhang Yiming is reluctant to sell TikTok to a US company and instead prefers the app to become a separate entity, independent from ByteDance. It is not clear if this solution could prevent a ban by the White House. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin said on Sunday that the president has the authority to force a sale or block the app entirely.
An outright ban of TikTok could benefit another US tech giant, Facebook. In mid-July, it was revealed that Facebook-owned Instagram plans on launching its version of the TikTok app sometime in August. Known as Reels, the video app has many of the same features as TikTok. Reels has been launched in other countries, including India, where it was released just days after TikTok was banned in the South Asian country.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress last week in a hearing on antitrust laws. Zuckerberg’s prepared testimony was made public ahead of the hearing, in it, the CEO blasted Chinese tech. Zuckerberg boasted that Facebook adheres to “American values” and warned of Chinese influence. “China is building its own version of the internet focused on very different ideas, and they are exporting their vision to other countries,” the testimony reads, a clear reference to TikTok.
TikTok’s American CEO Kevin Mayer, a former Disney executive, slammed Facebook in a blog post published the same day as Zuckerberg’s testimony. Mayer said TikTok welcomes competition and mentioned Facebook’s plan to launch Reels, calling it a “copycat” of TikTok. “But let’s focus our energies on fair and open competition in service of our consumers, rather than maligning attacks by our competitor – namely Facebook – disguised as patriotism and designed to put an end to our very presence in the US,” Mayer wrote.
All of the things TikTok is accused of, Facebook is guilty of in spades, with respect to the US government. In 2013, leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed that a program known as PRISM gives the NSA and FBI backdoor access to Facebook and other US tech companies to harvest user data. In the wake of the US assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, Facebook and Instagram censored posts portraying the general in a favorable light. Facebook has also teamed up with the Atlantic Council, a think-tank funded by the US government and US weapons manufacturers, to remove content.