Margaret Paul

Cannon Editor

TikTok, the immensely popular short video app originating from Chinese company ByteDance, has long been at the centre of controversy in America concerning its safety and data practices. On July 31st, the New York Times reported that while boarding Air Force One, President Trump said he would use his power to ban TikTok through an executive order. So, can Trump actually ban TikTok in America? According to legal scholars, no, not really. It’s not clear what kind of authority the American government possesses that would allow it to do to that. According to an article from Business Insider, there have been instances of banning specific IP addresses and shutting down websites. The dark web (also called the deep web) is full of illegal websites. However, barring entire software presents unprecedented legal challenges. One hypothetical method would be to, ironically, employ the same technique utilized by the Chinese government’s “Great Firewall.” It bans platforms like Facebook, Google and the international version of TikTok by blocking communication between the app and its user base on a national scale. India implemented this same strategy in its own ban of TikTok on June 29th after stating it had security concerns.

One of the motivations behind a TikTok ban came from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which evaluates mergers and investments concerning foreign companies. Specifically, it had concerns stemming from TikTok’s privacy policy, ties to the Chinese Community Party and its moderation guidelines. In September 2019, the Guardian reported that the app had been blocking or suppressing content that criticized the Chinese government. The majority of content targeted fell into the “hate speech and religion” category, including videos discussing Tiananmen Square, Tibet and Taiwan, and even independence in Northern Ireland. Users on the app have since taken to discussing these politically sensitive topics by captioning their videos with things like “pretend I’m doing a makeup tutorial” to hide from moderators.

In addition to bans on topics like these, there have been many accusations against TikTok about data farming. Its parent company, ByteDance, has been accused of ties to the Chinese Communist Party, and as such, people have generally worried about Chinese governmental access to international user data. In a Washington Post article from July 2020, they found no real evidence of data flowing into a specifically Chinese address. Most went to US-based clouds, including servers from Amazon, or backups in Singapore. Though, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the data remains exclusively in America. In December 2019, a Californian college student named Misty Hong filed a class-action lawsuit against the app, accusing it of transferring her private data to Chinese servers. She alleged that she downloaded TikTok in spring 2019 but never created an account. Instead, the app allegedly made one for her without her consent and even possessed a file of her private information on two China-based servers, including videos she made but never posted. The two servers are allegedly Bugly (owned by Tencent, China’s most prominent app company and owner of WeChat) and Umeng (part of Alibaba). This lawsuit has further exemplified American worries and suspicions about TikTok’s private data storage and its broader uses.

So, who owns TikTok now? After an executive order signed by Trump ordered ByteDance to sell its US operations, various American companies have been locked in a bidding war. In September, Oracle Corp. won, beating out Microsoft among others. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Oracle deal is more of a partnership than an acquisition, and might not involve a direct sale. In mid-August, Trump had voiced his support for the Oracle bid by calling it a “great company” and describing the owner, Larry Ellison, as a “tremendous guy, a tremendous person.” Ellison’s Rancho Mirage hosted a 2016 fundraiser for Trump, which prompted 300 Oracle employees to stage a walkout called “No Ethics, No Work.” A Change.org petition demanding Oracle’s senior management condemn Ellison’s support of Trump garnered 10,000 signatures. Ellison later tried to distance himself by saying to Forbes he allowed Trump to use his property but was not present at the event.

Also important to note is the CEO, Safra Catz, was a member of the Trump transition team in 2016 (prompting an Oracle executive to resign). According to the Santa Barbara Independent, Vice-Chairman Jeffrey Henley was the single largest Santa Barbara-based donor to Trump’s “Victory” PAC, giving $50,000 in March 2020. All this is to say, the Trump administration had much to gain from Oracle acquiring the TikTok deal, and vice versa. This relationship became especially apparent after Trump stated in early August 2020 that the US Treasury should get a “substantial portion” of the sales cost of TikTok’s American-based operations.

Some have also been critical of the Trump administration’s Chinese xenophobia and argue TikTok’s data management is no different than Facebook, Google and Twitter, but it faces more scrutiny because it’s Chinese. The President has notably not shied away from this kind of xenophobia in the past, notably calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” or “Kung Flu.” In a photo taken by Jabin Botsford for The Washington Post in March 2020, Trump had even crossed out the word “corona” in his press conference script and wrote in “Chinese.” Trump has stated many times he doesn’t see how calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” is racist or xenophobic, despite mounting criticism from the Asian-American community. Following its partnership with an American company, TikTok seems to be enjoying a more secure spot in the American marketplace, coupled with less suspicion. How long it’ll stay that way remains to be seen.

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