TikTok sale puts Canada be­tween U.S., China again

Ot­tawa faces pres­sure to take sides

Times Colonist - - Business - JOR­DAN PRESS

OT­TAWA — The po­ten­tial sale of so­cial-media plat­form TikTok to Mi­crosoft is leav­ing Canada with a sense of déjà vu.

Ex­perts say the coun­try is once again be­ing pres­sured to take sides in a de­bate about dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy that seems driven more by pol­i­tics than by pol­icy.

U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump is ef­fec­tively forc­ing the sale of the Chi­nese-owned TikTok, cit­ing na­tional-se­cu­rity con­cerns over the user data and de­vice ac­cess po­ten­tially avail­able to China’s gov­ern­ment.

Mi­crosoft has emerged as a po­ten­tial buyer for the pop­u­lar video-shar­ing app, seek­ing to ac­quire its pres­ence in the United States, New Zealand, Aus­tralia and Canada.

Michael Geist, an ex­pert in in­ter­net law at the Univer­sity of Ot­tawa, says the is­sue feels like a re­play of the de­bate over whether to al­low Huawei tech­nol­ogy into Canada’s 5G wire­less data net­works.

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment still hasn’t ended that de­bate with a de­ci­sion, while Huawei ex­ec­u­tive Meng Wanzhou awaits pos­si­ble ex­tra­di­tion to the United States after be­ing ar­rested in Van­cou­ver and two Cana­di­ans, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spa­vor, have been de­tained in China for more than 600 days.

Geist says Canada is once again un­com­fort­ably pres­sured to take sides in an emerg­ing global dig­i­tal tech bat­tle and may try to not get too in­volved in the TikTok talks.

“At this stage, I’m not con­vinced that the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment has clear pol­icy on the area,” Geist said, “mean­ing our likely re­sponse is to stay on the side­lines and let the is­sue un­fold with­out much in­put or en­gage­ment.”

TikTok launched three years ago and now boasts 100 mil­lion users world­wide who up­load short, catchy videos.

A re­port ear­lier this year from We Are So­cial, a global agency that tracks so­cial-media use, found that TikTok was the sixth most-down­loaded app in Canada in 2019, but used by only nine per cent of Cana­dian in­ter­net users aged 16 to 64.

Trump has framed his con­cerns around a Chi­nese com­pany hav­ing ac­cess to Amer­i­cans’ per­sonal data, echo­ing con­cerns that this year led a Chi­nese gam­ing com­pany to sell Grindr, a gay dat­ing app, to an U.S. com­pany for more than $600 mil­lion US.

Trump’s push comes amid es­ca­lat­ing rhetoric to­ward Bei­jing over trade and the novel coro­n­avirus pan­demic.

“The re­cent TikTok de­vel­op­ments in the U.S. ap­pear to be driven far more by pol­i­tics than pol­icy,” Geist said.

“There is lit­tle dif­fer­ence in the data col­lec­tion prac­tices of TikTok and the large U.S. so­cial­me­dia com­pa­nies.”

A de­ci­sion late last month from the Court of Jus­tice of the Euro­pean Union high­lighted what it saw as the in­ad­e­quacy of U.S. pri­vacy laws, say­ing the U.S. gov­ern­ment could have unchecked ac­cess to user in­for­ma­tion through its own sur­veil­lance laws.

So while bringing TikTok’s user data to U.S. servers might al­le­vi­ate con­cerns about Chi­nese spy­ing, it doesn’t elim­i­nate con­cerns of U.S. agen­cies do­ing the same to an Amer­i­can-owned plat­form.

“When Europe passed the strong­est pri­vacy reg­u­la­tion in the world, Mi­crosoft de­cided to offer those pro­tec­tions and rights to ev­ery­one — even though they weren’t re­quired to by law,” said Lau­ren Reid, pres­i­dent of pri­vacy con­sul­tancy The Pri­vacy Pro.

“At the end of the day, Mi­crosoft is a U.S. com­pany and is sub­ject to the U.S. gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance pro­grams, which al­low unchecked ac­cess to the per­sonal in­for­ma­tion held by pri­vate com­pa­nies.”

On Mon­day, Trump told re­porters he would ban TikTok in the U.S. un­less Mi­crosoft or another Amer­i­can com­pany bought the app by Sept. 15, with a por­tion of the sale go­ing to the U.S. trea­sury.

Christo­pher Par­sons, a se­nior re­search as­so­ciate at the Univer­sity of Toronto’s Ci­ti­zen Lab, said Trump’s ac­tions to force a sale would be a fairly sub­stan­tive break with the way govern­ments usu­ally treat in­ter­net com­pa­nies. In ef­fect, the pres­i­dent’s ac­tions sug­gest each coun­try should have its own branches of so­cial-media com­pa­nies, Par­sons said.

A ques­tion for Cana­dian pol­icy-makers is what they would do if a coun­try de­manded part of a do­mes­tic tech dar­ling — Par­sons used Ot­tawa-based Shopify as an ex­am­ple — be hived off for sim­i­lar rea­sons Trump has for TikTok. “If Canada were to be in­volved, I think that it may be less around con­cerns about there be­ing two Tik­Toks and more around are these the kinds of norms we want to be prop­a­gated,” he said.

Cit­ing na­tional-se­cu­rity fears, U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump is ef­fec­tively forc­ing the sale of Chi­nese-owned TikTok.

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