The Trump administration is looking to ban Chinese social media apps, including TikTok. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo mentioned the possibility on Tuesday, saying it was something they’re looking at.
Pompeo offered few specifics and he also compared TikTok to Huawei and ZTE. These were two companies that have suffered very real consequences after drawing US government ire.
With the ongoing tension between the US and China, Trump trying to ban TikTok isn’t out of the question. It’s not as simple as Pompeo and Ingraham make it sound. However, it could still cause trouble for the company and its users.
The most intense bans in apps happen at the network level. It blocks any communication between the targeted servers and users in the country. That’s the approach taken by the Great Firewall of China and it’s how India enforces its recently implemented TikTok ban.
Australia is considering a similar ban and would likely take the same approach. However, American law doesn’t have any precedent for blocking software in that way. It’s not likely that the White House would be able to follow through on that kind of heavy-handed network censorship.
TikTok, Huawei and ZTE
Pompeo has compared the administration’s TikTok plans to its crackdown on Huawei and ZTE. That included locking them out of government contracts.
TikTok has indeed been banned from many government employees’ work phones, including members of the US military. Some lawmakers have been pushing for an even broader restriction.
However, Huawei and ZTE sold components to telecom operators who, in turn, worked with government agencies. TikTok is a consumer app, so that should be a much less serious punishment.
Samm Sacks, senior fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center said, Huawei and ZTE are used by enterprises. TikTok is used by so many people in the US, he added.
The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) is a more likely target. It oversees mergers and investments involving non-US companies.
CFIUS opened a national security investigation into TikTok in 2019, citing similar concerns to Pompeo. There is enough evidence against the company to build a plausible case.
TikTok is a subsidiary of Beijing-based company ByteDance. Critics have raised several issues around both its overall privacy practices and potential ties to the Chinese government.
Leaked moderation guidelines discouraged criticism of events such as the Tiananmen Square protests. The app company says it stores American user data in the US. But there’s a persistent concern that it could pass information to Chinese state agencies.
TikTok has denied repeatedly that it shares information this way. It also says the moderation guidelines are no longer in use.
Analyst Sarah Cook said, the Chinese government has a history of gaining control over nodes in the information system.
Chinese Social Media Apps
If CFIUS deems Chinese ownership is a problem, the council could cause much trouble for TikTok. CFIUS has rejected some high-profile merger and acquisition plans in recent years.
These include a Chinese company’s purchase of gay hookup app Grindr, which it nixed on national security grounds. The council could make TikTok restructure in such a way that further separates its US presence from its Chinese one.
Or even make ByteDance sell off the American app Musical.ly, which it acquired to help cement its presence in the US. It’s still not precisely a “ban,” though. It certainly does not generalize to all Chinese social media apps.