TikTok is a popular video-sharing app
Video-sharing service TikTok is in a race against time to complete a deal with Microsoft, after US president Donald Trump threatened to ban the app, owned by ByteDance, a Chinese technology company.
For Trump, TikTok being overseen by Microsoft would allay a major fear he and others have about the rise of TikTok: that data produced in the app is sent to China, where it could be seen by the country’s ruling Communist Party. ByteDance denies that this happens.
In a blog post, Microsoft stated that it is negotiating to run TikTok in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, with plans to complete discussions by 15 September.
TikTok has been targeted by Trump for months as part of a wider geopolitical argument between China and the US. Trump’s political campaign has spent thousands of dollars on Facebook adverts reaching millions of voters in the past two weeks that claim TikTok is spying on people in the US.
The claims aren’t true, according to security researchers, who say TikTok gathers similar data to US social platforms. TikTok itself claims that it hasn’t received any requests from the Chinese government to access data – and if approached, it would refuse.
Trump’s attacks appear to be motivated by a diminishing of US power over the internet’s key services. “This is the first app for American people where it’s quite clearly super popular but isn’t American,” says Matthew Brennan, a tech analyst based in China. “I think Europeans are much more sympathetic towards that situation, whereas for Americans it’s a first. They’re struggling to handle it.”
The US isn’t the only country with a negative view of Chinese tech. India banned 59 Chinese-owned apps on 29 June, including TikTok, while politicians in the UK and Australia have called for TikTok to be banned there. At the same time, reports suggest that TikTok may be moving its global headquarters to London, which could place the UK in conflict with the US.
Brennan fears that such bans could reinforce US dominance online. “If TikTok is banned, or even if it’s a forced sale, it sets a precedent for this kind of thing.” Future innovation outside Silicon Valley could be stymied, for fear successful firms would have to sell up or be banned when they become too popular, he says.
But a ban on TikTok could also backfire. At the moment, the most widely used services, such as Google, Facebook and Amazon, are US-owned, and they could suffer the most if the internet fractures across national borders. If countries seek to create homegrown versions of these services, that would accelerate the diminishing of US global dominance.
“For the US to be aggressively pushing measures on these lines borders on insanity – they have a huge soft power, economic power and intelligence advantage from their domination of the internet,” says James Ball, author of upcoming book The System: Who owns the internet, and how it owns us. “It would be a monumental act of national self-sabotage.”
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