TikTok wins US lifeline as Trump and China warm to Oracle deal
Trump administration’s move to block TikTok and WeChat downloads on security grounds takes a leaf out of China’s playbook
TIKTOK’S future in the United States appeared rosier yesterday after a last-minute deal to save the viral video app won both the “blessing” of president Donald Trump and the cautious praise of China’s state media.
Mr Trump said on Saturday that he had “approved the deal in concept” and extolled it as a “great deal for America” with “100pc” security. TikTok also confirmed the agreement.
The next day, the Chinese Communist Party’s Global Times newspaper described the deal as “still unfair [but] relatively more reasonable”.
The plan still needs to be approved by Chinese officials. Mr Trump had previously ordered the app to be banned over national security concerns unless its Chinese parent ByteDance sold out of its US interests within 90 days. The current bargain would see TikTok’s 100m US users governed by a new company called TikTok Global, with 20pc owned by the Californian cloud computing firm Oracle and supermarket giant Walmart.
Such an arrangement could allay Washington’s concerns by routing US users’ data through Oracle, while obeying new Chinese export restrictions by letting ByteDance keep control of recommendation algorithms.
A parallel attempt by the president to ban the popular Chinese messaging app WeChat was halted yesterday by a US judge, who expressed concerns about free speech.
According to Reuters,
It is not illegal or impossible to use Facebook in China, simply inconvenient. The social network’s app is not available for download in the Chinese version of Apple’s App Store, nor on the many alternatives on the Android operating system. Even if the app is installed on a phone, it would not work: internet providers in the country have blocked the company’s servers for several years.
Nonetheless, people in China with a little technical know-how do use Facebook. One must alter the App Store’s regional settings to a different country, and use a virtual network app to route internet traffic through servers outside of China. They must do the same for a flurry of other apps banned in the country, including Google, Netflix and Twitter.
Today, smartphone owners in America face the prospect of using a similar set of tactics if they want to access one of the world’s most popular apps. On Friday, the US government said Apple and Google would have to remove TikTok, the popular video app, and WeChat, the messaging app used by the Chinese diaspora to talk to friends and relatives back home, from their respective app stores. More forceful measures that would block the apps from working at all by blocking traffic on US internet networks were also planned, although in TikTok’s case this was not due to happen until November.
Both ban orders were justified on national security grounds. TikTok and WeChat are owned by the Chinese companies ByteDance and Tencent, and the realities of Beijing’s legal system mean there would be little in theory that would stop the companies handing over data to the Chinese government.
Over the weekend, both bans were delayed. Donald Trump approved a salvage deal for TikTok in which the Silicon Valley company Oracle would host and secure user data in the US. WeChat’s ban was put on hold when a group of users who had launched a legal challenge to the order won a temporary suspension of it.
However, both bans remain a possibility. China must also approve ByteDance’s Oracle deal, and may be less receptive to it than the Trump administration, while the WeChat order could return if the legal challenge is ultimately struck down.
In that scenario, the American internet would start to look a bit more like the Chinese one.
If TikTok were banned from app stores, its American users, who number more than 100 million, would not notice an immediate difference, since they already have the app installed.
But since they would not have access to the updates that provide security fixes, performance upgrades and new features, the app would gradually fall apart, even before the Nov 12 deadline for internet providers to block it.
This would not be the end for TikTok, but users would have to adopt a similar set of subterfuge tactics to the Chinese denizens that wish to use Facebook. Over the weekend, social media – including TikTok itself – was awash with posts on how to use virtual networks and to switch countries on download stores.
If the ban goes through, expect the number of Apple accounts registered in Canada to exceed the number of Canadians, as Americans digitally cross the border to a region where the app is still available.
The app’s incredible pull will make these inconveniences worth it to a portion of its established base.
It may not come to that. Oracle’s rescue deal for TikTok may succeed, and courts deny Trump his WeChat ban.
But the saga has shown Trump is setting a precedent that will be difficult to walk back. He is willing to use a form of internet control – blocking and banning services that are deemed suspicious – that takes its cue from China.
Even the remedy for TikTok, a data storage partnership with an American company, seems inspired by the way Xi Jinping requires foreign companies to operate.
For Apple to operate in China, for example, it must store iCloud data on servers managed by a subsidiary of state-owned China Telecom. Western companies that wish to operate there must often do so through a joint venture with a domestic, often state-backed, company.
China and the US are not equivalent, of course. The fact that courts can block the government’s WeChat ban demonstrates that.
And there are certainly reasons to be suspicious of the two apps. Researchers have found WeChat in particular being used as a tool of Beijing’s censorship even outside China.
But the approach to tackling them could take a different path. TikTok could be required to submit to rigorous technical examinations of its source code and data centres to back up the company’s claims that user information does not flow to China.
WeChat might be asked to implement encryption protocols to limit how the company can spy on communications.
Instead, the White House has merely followed Beijing’s playbook. When we talk about the “splinternet” – the idea that the internet in different parts of the world is becoming Balkanised – we normally think in terms of a walled off and managed Chinese internet and a free and open one led by the US.
Last week’s actions saw the latter take a step towards the former. Other countries will use it as justification to follow.
‘Donald Trump is setting a precedent that will be difficult to walk back’