Experts React: TikTok’s Future in the U.S.

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The drama between the popular app TikTok and the Trump administration has been playing out for weeks after Washington threatened to block the Chinese-owned company over national security concerns.

The drama between the popular app TikTok and the Trump administration has been playing out for weeks after Washington threatened to block the Chinese-owned company over national security concerns. With a countdown to a ban ticking down, an agreement was recently approved that would create a new U.S. company owned by American software maker Oracle and retail giant Walmart. While the agreement tentatively averts a ban of the popular social media app, the confrontation underscores the simmering tensions between the United States and China. 

GMF’s experts in China, digital trade, and emerging technologies provide context and analysis on the TikTok story—one that is surely not over yet.


Lindsay Gorman, Emerging Technologies Fellow, Alliance for Securing Democracy - Washington

While it remains subject to change in what has become one of the more chaotic circuses of the Trump administration, the TikTok-Oracle-Walmart deal on the table fails to resolve the core national security concerns that prompted a review of TikTok in the first place: data security—who owns and can access an explosion of information on Americans—and information influence—whether the platform is too easy a vehicle for the disinformation campaigns China is propagating on U.S.-owned social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

Of equal concern is that the United States is bumbling its way into a global precedent without considering the consequences. China has been touting a version of this model for decades: a world in which there are no truly multinational companies, only companies with different value systems adapting to the control and value systems of their host countries.  The problem with this digital sovereignty agenda (which China and Russia have been promoting at the UN) is that local laws are the end-all-be-all; universal human rights fall to the wayside, and one nation’s laws are as valid as the next, even if they permit and advance techno-authoritarian repression. This directly contradicts democratic values. The United States’ response to authoritarian technology from China and other actors should center on universal rights and clearly-articulated harms against them.

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Sam duPont, Deputy Director, Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative - Washington

In waging its Digital Trade War, the Trump administration has embraced China’s vision of digital sovereignty: an Internet that is walled off along national borders, with barriers to the free flow of data. The resolution to the TikTok saga—focused on shifting TikTok’s user data to Oracle’s cloud infrastructure—will do nothing to address the national security concerns that ostensibly initiated this imbroglio, but serves as an endorsement of the kind of digital policies that China has long advocated and the United States has long opposed. This shift will come with costs for the United States. U.S. companies are beneficiaries of an open, global Internet, and if more countries follow the model set by China and emulated by the United States, that global internet will fracture, making digital trade impossible and forestalling the economic benefits of digitalization.

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Mareike Ohlberg, Senior Fellow, Asia Program - Berlin

There are legitimate concerns about Chinese-owned apps like TikTok and WeChat, including what data is collected and where it is stored as well as the question of what kind of content may be censored, even without users being notified. The full details about the TikTok deal, and even whether it is happening at all, are still unclear at this point. From what we do know, it looks unlikely that the partial sale will effectively address these concerns. While the Global Times, the nationalist tabloid attached to the CCP mouthpiece People’s Daily Group, has commented that the suggested deal shows “Washington’s bullying style and hooligan logic,” there is not that much that the Chinese government can credibly do in terms of reciprocal retaliation, as most Western social media and apps are already completely blocked in China.

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