Daily US Times: President Donald Trump’s ongoing battle with popular Chinese app TikTok is becoming one of the most curious chapters in America’s emerging cold war with China. Trump issued an executive order earlier this week, which gave the Chinese social media giant until the middle of September to find an American buyer or be banned in the country. Mr Trump also issued a similar executive order for the Chinese messaging service WeChat.
US tech giant Microsoft is prepared to pay around $50 billion for an app that is primarily used to watch funny and short videos created by other users. The app currently has 100 million American users. Analysts believe this popularity might grow so fast it will soon be worth $200 billion. The Trump administration wants to ban the app because it believes its Chinese owners could be required to cooperate with the government in China, which in turn, could use the platform for spreading misinformation, espionage or to threatening national security. If TikTok and Microsoft cannot pull off this purchase by mid-September Trump pulls the plug on its US operation.
It’s an irresistible twist in the Trump administration’s four-year diplomatic spat with Beijing and comes hot off Trump pressuring other countries to take a harder line on China.
However, critics worry that Trump’s latest attempts to turn the screws on Beijing could set an anti-democratic and dangerous precedent in how governments try to control the way citizens use the internet, which will be applauded by leaders of other countries where democracy is already backsliding.
Nanjala Nyabola, an author and political analyst specializing in politics in the digital age, said: “Restricting internet and interfering with people’s capacity to criticize power is not unprecedented on a global scale. It has happened in India, Iran and in different parts of Africa.”
“What people are struggling with is the fact it’s happening in the US. When a country like the US begins to erode the ideas of democracy it naturally opens the door for other countries to do the same.”
This might seem a dramatic analysis at first glance, given the comparisons in African and Iran, where people are arrested for expressing dissent online. All the US President is talking about is removing certain platforms from the American internet.
It’s the fact this is happening in the democratic posterchild that makes Trump’s steps so notable. Nic Cheeseman, professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham, said: “Every time Western leaders undercut free speech and the movement of ideas across boundaries without good reason, the cause of civil liberties is undermined.”
“It makes it that bit easier for governments seeking to clamp down on social media — in Iran, in Turkey, in Tanzania — to shut down critical voices,” Mr Cheeseman added.
Whether or not Mr Trump has good reason to shut down TikTok is open to debate. TikTok is owned by a private Chinese tech giant called ByteDance. The app itself does not operate in China and, in the case of the US, the app maintains that users’ data is stored on servers inside the US.
However, those who have skeptical about China worry that the Chinese government could demand TikTok hand over this data. They suspect that Beijing could force ByteDance to censor content, as happens routinely on the Chinese internet, most notably on WeChat, where images and words relating to controversial issues like Tibet and the Tiananmen Square massacre are banned from group and private chats.
They fear that TikTok app could be used to spread misinformation in the US. And, ultimately, they believe that the term private company is relative in China, the autocratic superpower currently locking horns with America.
There is also some irony in the idea that should the United States jettison TikTok from the internet, it would be behaving in some respects like China, whose government carefully censors what its citizens can do online. Some of the biggest American tech companies, including Google, Facebook, Twitter are banned in China.
Laura Rosenberger, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy and senior fellow at the Marshall Fund for the United States, said: “It is critical that any steps taken are in accord with democratic values … and messaged from the frame of advancing a democratic information space — not just countering authoritarian threats.”