Putting the phone down: age of innocence over as apps become pawns in new digital cold war
TikTok sale is only the start of disruption for the sector, write Hasan Chowdhury and Hannah Boland
As officials in Washington raise security concerns over TikTok’s ties to China, a make or break moment faces the viral video app. President Donald Trump has threatened to ban TikTok unless it agrees to sell its US operations to Microsoft or some other American provider by Sept 15. He also wants a cut of the deal.
China has hit back at what it described as Trump’s “outright bullying”. “This goes against the principles of the market economy and the principles of openness, transparency and non-discrimination,” said foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin.
TikTok may see such moves as a sign it is being used as a geopolitical football, but it is not alone. The smartphones in people’s pockets are increasingly becoming a battleground for nation states looking to antagonise one another in digital proxy wars.
“TikTok will be one of the first dominos to fall in what will be a lengthy process where lots of other apps get banned,” says Sanchit Jain, an analyst at Enders Analysis. “It is not unique in the Chinese app sphere.”
Recent skirmishes between China and India made this clear. Following a major military clash between the two countries, India said it was banning 59 Chinese apps. Among them were TikTok – the subcontinent is the app’s largest market outside China with more than 600m downloads, according to research firm SensorTower – and WeChat.
India has since stepped up its actions with a ban on a further 47 apps, and it is reportedly reviewing hundreds of others. “This sets a dangerous precedent for the US,” said Samm Sacks, a fellow on cybersecurity policy and China digital economy at the New
“We are moving down a path of techno-nationalism.” Although the clampdown on apps has been buoyed in recent months by growing antiChinese sentiment, it is China that has a long history of shunning foreign apps.
China walled off its own online sphere years ago, using the so-called “Great Firewall” to create an alternate universe where Tencent Holdings and Alibaba stood in for the likes of Facebook and Amazon.
It has shut out services like Twitter, forced foreign firms to secure local partners and distributors in areas from mobile games to cloud services, and curtailed investment in areas such as online banking. Microsoft’s Bing and LinkedIn, which both censor content in China, remain the only major search engine and social network allowed to operate there.
“We should respect every country’s own choice of their internet development path and management model, their internet public policy and the right to participate in managing international cyberspace,” president Xi Jinping told attendees at a highprofile internet conference in 2015.
“There should be no cyberhegemony, no interfering in others’ internal affairs, no engaging, supporting or inciting cyberactivities that would harm the national security of other countries.”
Claudia Verbost of Agency China says Beijing’s ban on non-Chinese apps has allowed the political regime to retain tight controls on the information made available to citizens online.
“The Great Firewall is there in the eyes of the Chinese government to protect its people and as a consequence technology firms have an advantage,” she says.
Though geopolitical tussles are often exercises in mere point scoring over adversaries, battles on a technological front can have dire consequences, as bans on apps can mean shutting down access to powerful tools of communication. During protests in 2017, Iran restricted access to both messaging app Telegram and photo-sharing platform Instagram, which had been used to organise the anti-establishment rallies, in a move officials claimed was to “maintain tranquillity”.
Others were more sceptical. “Obviously, our neutrality and refusal to take sides in such conflicts can create powerful enemies,” Telegram chief executive Pavel Durov had written at the time.
Iran is not alone in cutting access to such apps. Brazil has blocked WhatsApp multiple times, a messaging app which is seen as vital in a country where regular phone call and text message rates are prohibitively expensive. In 2016, for example, it suspended the app after it failed to hand over chat logs which related to a criminal investigation in the country.
Russia banned LinkedIn four years ago over claims it did not comply with personal data regulations. Critics claimed the move was about censorship and gaining control.
More recently, governments have not just been taking these measures to caution companies themselves – now apps are being used as “political pawns”, says Emma Mohr-McClune at GlobalData.
Smartphone apps rely on a global base of regular users, she says. They need mass, unfettered digital engagement – and “in restricting access to one nation of users, national leaders are in effect imposing a new form of digital embargo”.
Few politicians would admit as much. At least publicly, concerns on China have centred on access to data and whether Beijing is tapping into private information about citizens. Chinese-owned companies may reject such claims, but these fears are not without merit, analysts say.
“With many Chinese apps, the US government or the Indian government aren’t aware of how that data is being mined,” says Enders’ Jain. Only now, he says, these issues are being transformed into something much more contentious.
“Governments are increasingly turning these grey data practices into hot topics, whereby they are able to garner a lot of political capital with their voter base. They’re almost weaponising these issues,” Jain says.
How this will feed into the UK remains to be seen. Britain has recently signalled it will follow suit with the US on China, this summer having performed a U-turn on Huawei and blocking the Chinese firm from its telecom networks following pressure from Trump. Experts say there is a fine line for
British politicians to tread, with trade deals with both China and the US on the line. “Sitting and waiting to see where it all falls really is the best thing for the UK at the moment,” Jain says.
Dr Jie Yu, senior research fellow on China at Chatham House, says Chinese officials are unlikely to come to the defence of Bytedance as they did with Huawei. China already has wildly successful social media apps in the form of WeChat, and TikTok is unlikely to figure in a big way in the country’s long-term ambitions of becoming a technological powerhouse. “China can certainly afford to lose social media platforms because they have plenty of other apps which have become part of the Chinese state machinery,” she says.
But it will no doubt be assessing how things play out with TikTok. Many Chinese companies have had one eye on international destinations in recent years, having established themselves in their home market. Any manoeuvres to ban TikTok or siphon off the app to western rivals will make them more wary about where they take their products next. But other apps will have to keep close watch too, as the TikTok saga makes clear that these are no longer spaces for viral videos and memes but high-stakes arenas of international politicking.