Donald Trump has never been the most popular President with young people, but his latest move – banning TikTok and WeChat – will only further sour his reputation amongst young Americans. But the decision has been made, arguably, as part of a wider international political game that has seen the United States increasingly challenge the Chinese Communist Party and their growing influence over the American economy.
From Sunday 20th September, both TikTok and WeChat are being removed from all US app stores, as the State Department announced they were set to enforce an executive order from President Donald Trump.
It had been rumoured that the State Department would force Google Play and the Apple App Store to remove the applications from app stores in China, however, they stopped short of this move.
The United States’ Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, said that the move was a “significant action to combat China’s malicious collection of American citizens’ personal data”. The concern over the applications is that they collect significant amounts of data from individual users, which the United States government are concerned could be used by the Chinese government to wield influence in the US.
WeChat will be effectively removed immediately, whilst TikTok will face a “gradual degradation” as any updates and patches on the app will be banned, meaning that useability will decline over the coming months and likely drive users away from the app. Users would still be able to use the app until 12th November.
TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese company that has reported close ties to the Chinese Communist Party – whilst WeChat is owned by Tencent – meaning that there is a potentially significant ability for the Chinese government to access and potentially use the data of American citizens collected by TikTok. Academics Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg in their book, ‘Hidden Hand’, state that there is relatively little separation between Chinese companies and the Communist Party, meaning that they would potentially have significant influence over the company.
American corporation Oracle, have been working on a proposal with ByteDance that would have TikTok spun into a US company with an all-American board and a security committee with members who have government security clearance, in an attempt to arrest fears that the app could pose a security risk to the United States. However, as this potential outcome is yet to happen, the app will be removed.
There had earlier been a proposal that would see TikTok bought by American company Microsoft, owned by billionaire businessman, Bill Gates; this proposal never came to fruition despite significant talk about a Microsoft buyout of TikTok being imminent.
President Trump raised concerns about the continuing Chinese ownership of the app in recent weeks, whilst Senator Marco Rubio stated that the proposal to set up separate ownership of TikTok in the United States would allow ByteDance to retain control of the algorithms, with the suggestion that this still gave too much influence to a company that had potential ties and loyalties to the Chinese Communist Party.
There are hopes that a longer-term solution can be reached that would allow TikTok to return to US app stores before being fully removed on 12th November.
James Lewis, a cyber expert who spoke to the Financial Times, said: “Big data is the core of intelligence now […] This is the most intense espionage campaign against the US since the Reagan administration. We are engaged in an intense espionage contest — a spy war — with China.”
According to many experts, the future of international security will rely on data security, with concerns that companies with such close ties to foreign governments could undermine national security and create significant threats. Although many other nations are continuing to permit the use of TikTok – undermining some of the security claims made by the United States – it is clear that there is significant fear about data security easing its way into national security policy.
It is also speculated that the move is being motivated by the ongoing trade war between the United States and China, with Donald Trump challenging the previous trade orthodoxy to challenge the perceived influence of the Chinese Communist Party over the American economy.
This is backed up by many experts challenging the assertion that TikTok’s collection of user data poses any national security risk. Barack Obama’s former Asia adviser, Evan Medeiros, said the Trump administration had “never articulated the national security rationale for banning TikTok”.
The suggestion is that although data security is a major concern for national governments, the case of TikTok does not fit within this concern and is instead motivated by outside factors. It has been suggested that trade or a personal distaste that Donald Trump has for the app following its use to ‘troll’ Trump, by reserving seats at his Tulsa, Oklahoma, rally so that supporters could not attend, resulting in a near-empty venue, could be the real reason behind the ban.
Users of the app outside of the United States will not be impacted and it remains a possibility that a deal can be reached that makes TikTok palatable to the president; unless it is indeed that his personal feelings about being ‘trolled’ are the real reason behind the ban.