Technology

TikTok After Trump

TikTok may have outlasted the Trump administration, but whether it will find another enemy in Biden is unclear.

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TikTok has succeeded wildly where similar short-form video platforms—including Vine and the Facebook-backed Lasso—did not. As of August 2020, the app had 100 million active U.S. users, up from about 11.3 million at the start of 2018 and 39.9 million in October 2019. While becoming a vehicle for teen influencers, viral dance sensations, and sketch comedy, however, TikTok also became a target of the Trump administration's animosity toward both China and social media.

China's version of TikTok, Douyin, was launched in 2016 by ByteDance, a company incorporated in the Cayman Islands and headquartered in Beijing. In 2017, ByteDance bought the karaoke app Musical.ly and relaunched it as Douyin's global cousin, TikTok. The app's U.S. arm, which employs more than 1,500 people, stores user data in the United States and Singapore.

In August 2020, then–President Donald Trump issued an executive order declaring that TikTok and the China-based messaging platform WeChat were national security threats. He banned Americans from transacting with ByteDance, allowing 45 days for the order to take effect.

Trump's order fretted about the possibility that TikTok videos could spread coronavirus misinformation and warned that the app could be manipulated to aid the Chinese government. But the order did not allege that ByteDance had broken U.S. laws or suggest a plausible mechanism by which the Chinese state might use TikTok nefariously.

"We are shocked by the recent Executive Order, which was issued without any due process," TikTok said in an August statement. "For nearly a year, we have sought to engage with the U.S. government in good faith to provide a constructive solution to the concerns that have been expressed. What we encountered instead was that the Administration paid no attention to facts, dictated terms of an agreement without going through standard legal processes, and tried to insert itself into negotiations between private businesses."

TikTok had been working with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), a federal body that reviews certain types of foreign investment in the U.S. for potential national security concerns. In a lawsuit challenging Trump's order, the company says it has "taken extraordinary measures to protect the privacy and security of TikTok's U.S. user data" and that the CFIUS had seemed satisfied until the last minute: "At 11:55 p.m. on July 30, 2020—the final day of the statutory CFIUS review period—the Committee issued a letter stating that 'CFIUS has identified national security risks arising from the Transaction and…has not identified mitigation measures that would address those risks.'" TikTok says the letter was "principally based on outdated news articles" rather than the "voluminous documentation" it had provided.

"We believe the Administration's decisions were heavily politicized," TikTok said in an August 24 statement explaining its decision to challenge the order. "We do not take suing the government lightly, however we feel we have no choice."

A TikTok employee also challenged the order in a suit filed by lawyer (and Reason contributing editor) Mike Godwin and the Blackstone Law Group. There's no rational "threat model" for TikTok, Godwin says. "I know what moral panics look like; they look kind of like this."

Last fall, the Commerce Department began issuing rules to implement Trump's order, including a ban on providing access to TikTok through U.S. app stores. But enforcement of the rules was delayed, first by a potential deal with the Trump administration and then by the courts.

Not long after issuing his order, Trump suggested TikTok would be OK if ByteDance "divest[ed] any tangible or intangible assets or property, wherever located, used to enable or support ByteDance's operation of the TikTok application in the United States." Microsoft, Oracle, and Walmart were all lined up as potential buyers. But no deal materialized, even as the CFIUS twice extended the deadline for a sale, first to November 27 and then to December 4.

Meanwhile, TikTok has seen some early wins in court. In late September, a federal judge  granted TikTok's request for a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the app store ban. The Commerce Department said it would not start enforcing the ban while the case was pending. In late October, another federal court—this one considering a lawsuit by TikTok users—also put a hold on enforcement of the ban. Judge Wendy Beetlestone of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania noted that letting the ban stand would "have the effect of shutting down, within the United States, a platform for expressive activity used by about 700 million individuals globally," including "at least 50 million" Americans who "use the app on a daily basis."

TikTok may outlast the Trump administration, but whether it will find another enemy in President Joe Biden is unclear. Although Biden's grandkids and Vice President Kamala Harris' stepdaughter are apparently TikTok users, Biden suggested in September that the platform is dangerous, regardless of any alleged data handling issues. "I think that it's a matter of genuine concern that TikTok, a Chinese operation, has access to over 100 million young people, particularly in the United States of America," Biden told reporters at a Minnesota campaign stop.

For now, it looks like TikTok's fate rests with the courts.

NEXT: Brickbat: Snow Job

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  1. “Keep writing about Trump!! It doesn’t have to make sense or be interesting!”

    -Reason editors

  2. Much more important story than the current president calling genocide a cultural norm.

    1. Local story.

    2. So he’s backing down from the genocide declaration already? Wonder how long until it becomes “racist” and a job firing worthy event to call out china’s actions as horrific violations of human rights.

      1. “Genocide” is such an icky word. Far too many negative connotations. “Cultural integrity” has a much better ring to it. Wouldn’t want China to turn into a racial jungle, now would we?

        1. Genocide, to me, implies the Holocaust or the Armenians; murder on a factory scale. Thus the -cide ending, like homicode, patricide, etc. Merely enslaving people in labor camps is not quite the same. Still stupid, counter-productive, and immoral, but not genocide. I suspect other people have different definitions.

    3. Biden would compromise, and agree for China to reduce their concentration camp population by half, without specifying how.

  3. “I think that it’s a matter of genuine concern that TikTok, a Chinese operation, has access to over 100 million young people, particularly in the United States of America,” Biden told reporters at a Minnesota campaign stop.

    “Only *U.S.* operations should have access to those young people!”

  4. ENB is to Trump as a nasty-assed ‘fatal attraction like’ ex-girlfriend is to a guy. Pathetic.

    1. She’s the SJP of Reason.

  5. I think we heard a clue during Biden’s CNN “town hall” the other night.

    He said that he had a 2 hour conversation with the Chinese premier, and “he gets it”. The “it” that he gets was the fact that a leader must reflect his culture and the will of his people.

    So Biden explicitly endorsed China’s actions to rule things tightly. He specifically said he would not be “calling out” China for their actions in Hong Kong. Or with the Uygur people… you know, concentration camps, mass rape, that sort of thing. Or with their “one China” policy of reunification with Taiwan using force if necessary.

    “I point out to him no American President can be sustained as a President if he doesn’t reflect the values of the United States. And so the idea is, that I am not going to speak out against what he’s doing in Hong Kong, what he’s doing with the Uyghurs in the western mountains of China and Taiwan trying to end the one-China policy by making it forceful…he gets, it culturally there are different norms that each country and that leaders are expected to follow,” Biden said.

    He explicitly says that he will not call them out for these abuses… including reunification with Taiwan by force…

    And yet the headlines at places like The Business Standard claim the exact opposite.

    Maybe he just misspoke… you know, saying that because China has a different internal standard they have to run things tightly and he won’t call them out for it really meant that they would pay a heavy price…..

    1. Here’s coverage of the exact same speech.. with a little different spin:
      https://nypost.com/2021/02/17/biden-says-uighur-genocide-is-part-of-chinas-different-norms/

      Of course, this is the hated NY Post who falsely claimed that Hunter Biden’s laptop had emails that demonstrated that there was a conspiracy to funnel money to Biden from China… but we know that was fake news because only a couple of the people involved in the conspiracy confirmed the emails and the conspiracy.

      So when they write

      President Biden continued in his response that he is “not going to speak out against” the Chinese Communist Party’s belligerent actions in Hong Kong, against the Uighurs, or in Taiwan.

      “I point out to him no American president can be sustained as a president, if he doesn’t reflect the values of the United States,” the US president continued. “And so the idea that I am not going to speak out against what he’s doing in Hong Kong, what he’s doing with the Uighurs in western mountains of China and Taiwan — trying to end the one China policy by making it forceful … [Xi] gets it.”

      “Culturally there are different norms that each country and their leaders are expected to follow,” he continued.

      The “norms” in China, as shown in a recent BBC News exposé, include systemic torture and rape occurring in Uighur concentration camps.

      you can bet that it is all just fake news.

      1. Oh, and bonus fun from that story… that little stinger at the end of the quote about the BBC running an expose on systemic torture and rape of the Uighur people in concentration camps?

        Yeah… China banned BBC news in response.

        See? That’s how you handle fake news. (coming soon to a country near you)

    2. Don’t worry. I’m sure that when China invades Taiwan, we’ll submit a letter of protest to the Security Council.

  6. The value of the TikTok sale to Walmart was in presenting a legitimate threat to Google’s advertising business and to provide further competition to both Amazon’s advertising business and its retail operations.

    The question isn’t whether Biden will leave TikTok to become a competitor to YouTube. The question is whether Biden will force a break up of Google, (Facebook, and Amazon) as an alternative.

    It’s important to understand that the status quo is not an option. There are two antitrust cases pending against both Facebook and Google, and all indications are that both the Biden administration and Congress are on board with a massive reorganization and/or massive regulation of both them–and all the other big tech guys by extension.

    It’s also important to remember that the sale to the Walmart partnership, last I heard, still kept a majority of the ownership in the hand of TikTok’s current non-publicly traded owners–minus the ownership of members of the Chinese Communist Party and members of the People’s Liberation Army.

    The forced sale wasn’t really forcing its current owners to sell the company’s U.S. operations to Walmart and Oracle so much as it was forcing the Chinese Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army to sell their shares in the private company to the other partners in the deal: Sequoia Capital, KKR, General Atlantic and Hillhouse Capital Group. Trump was forcing some of its investors to sell their stake in the company to other investors.

    I maintain that just because all the available options are imperfect doesn’t mean that one isn’t better than the others, and I maintain that forcing the CCP and the PLA to sell their stakes to their U.S. partners so that they can create a legitimate competitive threat to Google and Amazon is by far the best of all the bad options.

    And given the fact that there are two antitrust cases already pending and both the public mood against social media and the hostility both parties in Congress have shown towards big tech, the status quo probably isn’t one of the options. We should probably interpret Biden’s move to kill the sale as an indication that the Biden administration intends to break up Google–and force them to spin off YouTube.

    1. “Congress Reveals Plans to Break Up Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Google”

      https://observer.com/2020/10/house-democrat-antitrust-amazon-facebook-google-breakup/

      Why are we ignoring this? And that was before the Democrats won the White House and the Senate.

      Biden is on the record saying he would consider breaking up those companies.

      TikTok isn’t happening in a vacuum, and the writing is already on the wall for the status quo.

  7. TikTok may have outlasted the Trump administration, but whether it will find another enemy in Biden is unclear.

    I’m not sure how its unclear. The President has chosen to side with the Chinese v the Uighurs.

    Its a ‘different cultural norm’.

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