Saturday will be marked one year from Donald Trump he said he would forbid extremely popular and annoying addictive short video app TikTok from millions of U.S. smartphones, citing threats to the privacy and security of users posed by its Chinese property.
A week later, Trump signed executive order directing the Chinese application owner, ByteDance, or sell TikTok to a U.S. company within 45 days or see it forcibly removed from app stores and blocked. The deadline has been extended several times, and Oracle and Walmart appeared as alleged saviors for TikTok in an agreement that was later shelf. At one point Trump brazenly he suggested that any sale should include a cut for the U.S. government myself.
A year later, nothing has changed and everything has changed. ByteDance still owns TikTok, which added 7 million new U.S. users in the first four months of this year. Trump is no more, and the threat from the U.S. government has receded – but the Chinese government has now towered over the popular app.
“If I were ByteDance, I wouldn’t be breaking champagne,” he says James Lewis, Senior Vice President and Director of the Strategic Technologies Program at Center for Strategic and International Studies. “TikTok could stand perfectly still, but the landscape revolves around them – mostly because of Chinese activities.”
China has taken an increasingly firm approach to regulating its technology companies and monitoring the data they possess. After the fall of the IPO of Ant Financial, a separate e-commerce giant Alibaba, last december, the government introduced new cyber security rules in april that put domestic technology companies on a stricter footing.
This month, the Chinese government blocked Didi’s call service to register new users and ordered the removal of the app from Chinese app stores just days after the company’s IPO, allegedly defiant recommendation to postpone a cyber security audit. ByteDance also has allegedly on the shelf own IPO due to similar government oversight.
In the United States, President Biden in June withdrew Trump’s executive order to ban TikTok, as well as another Chinese-owned app, WeChat. Last week, TikTok and the administration agreed to drop the lawsuit because of Trump’s attempt at a ban. But Biden ordered the Ministry of Trade to launch an investigation into foreign-owned applications, including TikTok.
Lewis believes the White House is just as embarrassed by Biden because of TikTok as his predecessor. He says the administration can issue its own enforcement order leading to a forced sale. “This administration is tougher on China than on Trump, in part because they are organized,” he says. “It’s not chaos.”
Trump’s moves against TikTok came amid growing doubts about the West’s economic growth and technological reach. Many European countries have sought to limit economic ties with China in recent years, he said July 2020 report from the Brookings Institution, a DC-based think tank.
The feeling goes both ways. Rui Ma, analyst with Tech Buzz China who closely monitors ByteDance, says there has been a significant departure from the idea of ByteDance selling off TikTok in China. Some feared that U.S. ownership would pose a security risk to the parent company and the data of its Chinese customers.
TikTok may seem an unlikely subject to superpower competition. The application offers an endless series of remixed songs, memes, viral clips and strange cameos of celebrities, algorithmically selected to satisfy your interests and tastes. Trump’s threatening ban last year came as a shock and distrust to teenagers addicted to TikTok; others he noticed the irony of turning it off a platform that rewards freedom of expression in the name of punishing China, where information is strictly controlled.
ByteDance does not appear to be an agent of the Chinese government. The company faced that government pressure in recent years through rare or obscene content served in a news app Jinri Toutiao (meaning “today’s headlines”). But TikTok’s ties with China remain a concern for the U.S. government, especially as its reach and influence grow. U.S. TikTok users increased to 73.7 million in April from 65.9 million at the end of 2020, according to eMarketer, an analytical firm. The app is a striking example of smart Chinese business savvy, surpassing some of the world’s largest social media companies, such as Facebook and Twitter, on their field in Silicon Valley.
TikTok has grown thanks to ByteDance’s acquisition of 2017’s American lip synchronization app Musical.ly. At Trump’s behest, the U.S. Foreign Investment Committee conducted a retrospective review of Musical.ly’s purchase, as of August 2020 to pose a threat to national security. CFIUS and the Department of Commerce did not respond to requests for comment.
TikTok has launched new initiatives aimed at attracting users to engage and use the platform in new ways. Last week this included the way users can apply for a job by recording a “TickTok resume” to send to selected companies they hire. “TikTok has massive data on Americans,” Lewis says. “There are their faces, voice, IP. It has become a huge window into American society. “