On July 7th, Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, told Fox News he was considering a ban on TikTok, the Chinese-owned app best known for dancing teenagers, roller skating, and Fleetwood Mac enthusiasts. You should only use TikTok “if you want your private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party,” Pompeo said.
All hell promptly broke loose. Amazon banned and then unbanned TikTok from employees’ phones; Wells Fargo asked employees to remove TikTok from their phones; and the Democratic and Republican national committees found something to agree on: avoiding TikTok.
On July 31st, President Donald Trump announced he’d ban the app from the US. Trump then issued an executive order on August 6th banning “transactions” between people in the US and TikTok’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance. He also declared TikTok a “national emergency,” which is honestly the kind of publicity you can’t buy. A national emergency!
Understandably, TikTok’s CEO, Kevin Mayer, quit on August 27th. He had joined the company in May, having left a lucrative post as Disney’s head of streaming.
The administration’s fears aren’t really about the content of TikToks — though some of the content, such as Sarah Cooper’s Trump impression, or the teens who are credited with organizing on TikTok to ruin one of his rallies, may have gotten under the president’s skin. Rather, the stated concern was about how much data on US users the Chinese government should be allowed to gather. The privacy freak-out occurred shortly after the revelation that the app was snooping on users’ clipboard data, a practice TikTok says it would stop. (For what it’s worth, LinkedIn and several other apps were up to the exact same thing; while TikTok collects a lot of unnecessary data, so does everyone else.)
By December, the controversy had matured into a pile of lawsuits — with judges ordering the TikTok ban should be entirely blocked. The entire farce seemed to demonstrate what the US in 2020 would be willing to do to competitive, non-US apps.
It is trivially obvious that the debacle was less about TikTok and more about anti-Chinese sentiment. Once upon a time, Americans might have pointed out that American companies running on a commercial version of a military project were projecting American values: freedom of speech, including the freedom to dissent against one’s government. Of course, in 2013 Edward Snowden smashed that impression — the US was spying on everyone, collecting bulk data from every US company in secret, with the help of American tech companies. The fear is that China might be doing the exact same thing.
Any government collecting this kind of bulk data is a threat to freedom for all people, but that appears to be beside the point. There is no moral reason to view China’s collection of bulk data as any different than American collection of bulk data, particularly after President Donald Trump attempted a coup to reject democratic election results.
But let’s imagine an American government that is actually interested in its citizens’ privacy. One possible remedy for discovering that TikTok and everyone else were collecting a scary amount of data is an internet privacy bill that treats every company the same, American or not. Legislation could also decree that companies dispose of the sensitive data they collect on their users after a certain period of time. And if the concerns are around state actors such as China or even the US collecting sensitive data through these companies, well, that seems like the kind of thing one sorts out at the United Nations!
The Trump administration, instead, chose to try to strongarm TikTok into being sold to an American company, highlighting the view that the problem was not that TikTok was collecting the data in the first place, but simply that it was collecting the data for the wrong country. The August 6th executive order, which demanded that an American company purchase TikTok’s US business within 45 days, was later extended to give ByteDance 90 days instead, though — confusingly — the Department of Commerce was still operating with a 45-day deadline, on September 20th.
Once TikTok was on the auction block, Walmart, Microsoft, Twitter, and Oracle were reportedly among the interested parties. Except the Oracle / Walmart deal that emerged addressed none of the purported security concerns.
The deal — which has not yet closed — created a new company called TikTok Global. There is, however, some confusion about how that company is going to work. According to ByteDance, it will own 80 percent of the company and the Oracle / Walmart consortium will own 20 percent.
Oracle, however, views this differently. “Upon creation of TikTok Global, Oracle/Walmart will make their investment and the TikTok Global shares will be distributed to their owners, Americans will be the majority and ByteDance will have no ownership in TikTok Global,” Oracle said in a statement to reporters.
To add to the hilarity, the Oracle deal appears to be… for hosting on Oracle’s cloud servers, and accomplishes absolutely nothing in assuaging the security concerns that were the pretext for the deal’s existence in the first place. Oracle isn’t writing the code; even if they’re auditing it, it’s still possible for ByteDance to sneak stuff by. Oracle doesn’t get the algorithm or moderation, either.
“A deal where Oracle takes over hosting without source code and significant operational changes would not address any of the legitimate concerns about TikTok,” former Facebook security chief Alex Stamos said on Twitter, “and the White House accepting such a deal would demonstrate that this exercise was pure grift.”
Walmart has promised the new company, TikTok Global, will pay $5 billion more in taxes to the US. Bragging about new jobs and tax revenue isn’t necessarily unusual in the corporate world, but this time it feels weird — since Trump publicly said in August that the US Treasury ought to get a “very big proportion” of whatever price TikTok was sold at.
Incidentally, in October it came out that Oracle’s bombastic founder, Larry Ellison, donated a cool quarter-million to a super PAC that supported Lindsey Graham. In an August interview with Vanity Fair, Graham said he was the one who told Trump to find a US company to buy TikTok. “Let Microsoft or somebody buy it, put it in American hands and allow the platform to survive and thrive because so many people enjoy it,” Graham claims he told Trump. “If TikTok is saved, you can thank me.”
Twice now, judges have said the Trump administration can’t ban TikTok. But the wheels of justice turn slowly — and so TikTok has sustained plenty of damage while the courts have been catching up to the Trump administration’s pronouncements. In fact, there is another American business that benefits from this digital protectionism, besides Oracle and Walmart: Facebook.
When India banned TikTok in June, a Facebook data scientist reported that use of Facebook products surged in response. “With TikTok gone, Instagram’s daily users increased 9 percent and were spending 19 percent more time within the app,” Casey Newton reported for The Verge. “With TikTok gone, they posted 5 million more stories and sent 214 million more messages on Instagram alone.”
So, what have we learned from this bizarre episode? The Trump administration has a shaky grasp on what’s legal; despite an order being potentially illegal, it can still do a great deal of damage before any judges catch up; Walmart apparently wants in on a social network; Graham is either the Trump tech whisperer or a shameless braggart; and no one in government really seems to give a shit about user privacy — from China or otherwise.
At least the teens kept dancing.