Time’s up for TikTok
Facebook’s biggest irritant cannot survive in its current form
Scroll through TikTok for a few minutes, and the wildly popular video app certainly doesn’t feel like a threat to national security. Its lip-synching teenagers, cute pets and dance routines are so out of step with warnings about the app being a spying device for the communist regime in China as to be almost comical. But make no mistake, time is running out for TikTok. Its Beijing-based owner, the tech firm ByteDance, has done its best to ease concerns. It has hired American Kevin Mayer, a former Disney executive to run TikTok.
It has started storing user data on servers in the US and Singapore, insisting it is inaccessible to Beijing. And it has hired a phalanx of lobbyists to rebut claims it is in the services of Beijing.
But at best, all this does is delay the inevitable. Huawei tried for years to offer compromises such as security inspections, licensing agreements and audits that would allow it to operate in the West. In the end, it did not matter. There was no getting around the key problem with Huawei – that Chinese national security laws compel any company based there to hand over data if asked.
The same situation, ultimately, dooms TikTok in its present state. So far, no gaping security or privacy flaw has been discovered in the app. It collects large amounts of user data, but not substantially more so than US internet companies like Facebook and YouTube.
This is irrelevant. Any reassurance or promise TikTok can make is fatally undermined by Chinese ownership. It could denounce communism, endorse Donald Trump, the US president, and change its logo to the American flag for all the good it would do.
Already, many branches of the US government have banned the app from employees’ phones and corporations are coming under pressure to follow. India has banned TikTok outright.
The next phase of enforcement will be more heavy handed. Trump has already said he is considering a ban, an action that would most likely take the form of placing the company on a US blacklist.
This would see Apple and Google removing TikTok from their respective app stores and preventing people from downloading the app onto their phones.
Even this may not be enough to satisfy critics. TikTok has already been downloaded more than 2bn times worldwide, so blocking it from app stores merely bolts the proverbial barn door. The more extreme solution would be to block internet users from accessing TikTok’s services altogether by forcing internet providers to deny access to its servers. This would effectively create an American version of China’s “Great Firewall”, which the Communist Party has used for more than a decade to control the web, banning the likes of Facebook, Google, Wikipedia and any other service that refuses to comply with strict censorship laws.
Although hawks might argue that China’s actions have set a precedent here – as India did when implementing a sweeping ban of Chinese apps last month – a Western democracy doing the same would be seen as overstepping the mark.
There are other reasons we should not want TikTok banned entirely. Right now, it is perhaps the greatest challenge to Facebook’s dominance of social media. Mark Zuckerberg’s behemoth has successfully neutered previous challenges to his company. Twitter and Snapchat have managed to remain independent, but do not qualify as serious rivals.
TikTok appears to be one of the few players that keeps Zuckerberg awake at night, as demonstrated by Facebook’s repeated attempt to launch copycat versions of the app.
After India’s TikTok ban, Facebook’s Instagram subsidiary wasted no time in releasing an app called Reels in the country. It is widely seen as a TikTok clone. If other countries were to follow India, it would just create more of a vacuum for Zuckerberg’s company to occupy.
While we should want Facebook to have competition, this does nothing to change the national security issues surrounding TikTok. Concerns about foreign spying will always trump those about domestic choice.
Perhaps both can be resolved. TikTok is not entirely an invention of ByteDance, but a descendant of Musical.ly, a short-lived app that the Chinese company acquired in 2017.
Crucially, the takeover did not seek approval from America’s committee on foreign investment in the US (CFIUS), a government agency that has the power to unwind deals if they are deemed to be a threat to national security.
If CFIUS were to force ByteDance to sell TikTok to a US bidder, it could create an independent domestic challenger to Facebook that is big enough to avoid being crushed by Zuckerberg’s steamroller.
There are signs that ByteDance is planning to get ahead of this likelihood. Reports emerged last week that the company is in discussions over a sale with its American investors including the venture capital firms Sequoia Capital and General Atlantic.
That would be a preferable solution to a forced sale. Better still would be to float TikTok, which is big enough now not to need the protection offered by staying private and is valued at up to $40bn (£31bn).
ByteDance, which is preparing for its own giant listing, will be loath to give up its star asset. But TikTok will not survive in its current form.