Previewing the TechStream newsletter: The geopolitics of TikTok

A man holding a phone walks past a sign of Chinese company ByteDance's app TikTok, known locally as Douyin, at the International Artificial Products Expo in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China October 18, 2019. Picture taken October 18, 2019.  REUTERS/Stringer  ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. CHINA OUT. - RC171198B320

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A man holding a phone walks past a sign of Chinese company ByteDance's app TikTok, known locally as Douyin, at the International Artificial Products Expo in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China October 18, 2019. Picture taken October 18, 2019.  REUTERS/Stringer  ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. CHINA OUT. - RC171198B320

The geopolitics of TikTok

As the first Chinese social media platform to have built a global audience, TikTok represents a critical test case for whether the social web can stay truly global. That test is now playing out within the Trump administration.

This week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Trump administration is “certainly looking at” banning TikTok from the United States. “With respect to Chinese apps on peoples’ cellphones, the United States will get this one right too.”

The app has already been banned for use among American servicemembers, and Trump administration officials have raised alarms about the app’s ties to the Chinese government. India recently banned TikTok, along with a slew of other popular Chinese apps, amid growing tensions between Delhi and Beijing. Now, Washington may be next to move against the app.

Why it matters. The internet is already a fairly splintered place—much of what internet users in China experience is far different than in the United States, for example—and the growing movement toward banning apps only threatens to make it more so.

The promise of a free and open internet as a force for political liberation, a concept the Obama White House embraced enthusiastically, has waned in recent years. Today, the internet is more a zone of competition—and with growing skepticism toward China in Washington, the internet is merely the latest front in their geopolitical conflict.

As China hawks see it, TikTok is not just an app for teens to share viral dance videos. It’s also an online outpost of the Chinese Communist Party, one that Beijing could leverage to collect huge amounts of data on individuals in the United States. In that regard, the skepticism of American and Western officials toward TikTok mirrors their concerns about hardware providers like Huawei, which could also potentially be used for collecting private data en masse.

For its part, TikTok insists it would not comply with Chinese data requests, and is currently in the midst of a campaign to publicly distance itself from Beijing. While TikTok is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, the app isn’t available inside China, where users can instead use the Chinese equivalent, Douyin. Responding to Beijing’s imposition of strict national security laws in Hong Kong, TikTok has even said it would no longer operate there.

What makes a possible U.S. ban on TikTok so interesting are the tensions that underlie it. Whereas Hillary Clinton lauded the internet freedom agenda when she was U.S. Secretary of State a decade ago, the current U.S. Secretary of State is now considering banning a foreign dance app. And whereas Chinese-owned companies are presumed to march in lockstep with officials in Beijing, TikTok is explicitly trying to establish its independence, even on sensitive touchpoints like Hong Kong. Establishing that independence—whether real or perceived—is a key challenge for Chinese tech conglomerates if they’re to expand beyond China’s borders. How those tensions will be resolved remains unclear.

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What we’re following

Coordinated inauthentic behavior. The term “coordinated inauthentic behavior” has quickly become the standard industry phrase for describing foreign influence operations. It has spread to Congress, where lawmakers are praising Facebook, which coined the term, for cracking down on it. But the term itself remains highly unclear and contested, the legal scholar Evelyn Douek writes, and that’s a major problem heading into election season. The latest example of coordinated inauthentic behavior came on Wednesday, when Facebook removed accounts belonging to Trump confidante Roger Stone after he was linked to a disinformation network.

The EARN IT Act. The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a controversial measure that would require companies to prevent the spread of sexual abuse material and meeting a set of as-yet defined security standards. The bill is widely viewed as a backdoor measure for undermining encryption standards—a move long sought by U.S. law enforcement.

Data requests. Google, Facebook, and Twitter said they would pause processing data requests from the Hong Kong government amid a review of China’s imposition of a restrictive new national-security law. The same end-to-end encryption technologies that lawmakers in Washington are currently trying to undermine are the same technologies that activists in Hong Kong are now rushing to adopt to evade surveillance by Chinese authorities.

5G in UK. The government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson appears set to tighten restrictions on Huawei by phasing out the company’s role in UK 5G networks. The move would represent a major diplomatic victory for the United States after London initially adopted a fairly permissive view of Huawei’s participation in the United Kingdom’s 5G build out.

Silicon Valley defense contracts. A review of 30 million government contracts signed in the last five years reveals that the U.S. Defense Department and federal law enforcement agencies have signed thousands of deals with companies like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft. While tech company employees have in recent years loudly protested contracts with defense and law enforcement agencies, the new research indicates the relationship between the Pentagon and Silicon Valley is much closer than previously understood.

Contact-tracing apps. Governments around the world are scrambling to address technical and privacy problems in contact-tracing apps meant to help contain the spread of COVID-19, the New York Times reports. That’s a problem Ashkan Soltani, Ryan Calo, and Carl Bergstrom examined in detail in April in a piece that now reads like a prescient warning of what was to come.

A final data point

5,517: the number of individuals identified for screening using cellphone location data, credit card records, and lists of nightclub visitors as part of South Korea’s investigation into a recent COVID-19 flare-up tied to nightclubs in Seoul.

57,536: the number of individuals sent text-messages encouraging them to get tested after having spent more than 30 minutes in the vicinity of the nightclubs in question determined by their cellphone.

— As described in a recent study by South Korean epidemiologists.

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