The United States has the highest number of cases and deaths attributed to the coronavirus in the world. Although its population exceeds 328 million people, the more than 4.6 million infected and the nearly 156,000 deaths in the U.S. are not an anecdote.
These data, which are only increasing, in the face of a virus that has gone out of control in states such as Florida, California or Texas, seem to capture the attention of a large part of the American population and political class. But not so from its president, Donald Trump. "Much of our country is doing very well," the American tycoon wrote last Sunday on his personal Twitter account.
Trump has tried to turn media attention to a new battle in the Cold War that he has been waging with China since he arrived at the White House.
TikTok is the last target of the American president. Last Monday at the White House, Trump said the social network would be shut down in the United States on September 15 unless Microsoft or another "very American" company bought it.
He also said the US should receive money in exchange for allowing the deal to go through, without explaining how it would work. "A very substantial part of that price will have to go to the U.S. Treasury, because we are making this deal happen," he said.
TikTok, an application that is part of the ByteDance company, may be Chinese, but the Americans have accepted it as their own. A total of 30 million American users have downloaded the application. While Facebook is for sharing baby pictures, Twitter is for ranting against politicians and Instagram is for sharing how popular you are, TikTok combines simplicity and childishness, but has reached over 700 million users: a forum where you can dance, sync jokes, capture animal pranks and share. The relationship between TikTok and China dates back to 2016 when the Chinese technology giant ByteDance decided to expand through the purchase of Muscial.ly, an American application that was incorporated into TikTok's operations.
For the Trump Administration, the application poses a risk to the privacy of user data in their country, and therefore a danger to national security, as it involves them having information exposed that the Chinese government, through ByteDance, could use.
Considering national security concerns, Trump may have the right to approve a plan to mitigate the risks that TikTok may represent, but as Daniel Price, former economics advisor to President George W. Bush, told the New York Times, this decision on the Chinese platform "is just one example of the president's undisciplined and impulsive decision-making style, so perplexing to both friends and enemies.
Washington already introduced a bill in March that would prohibit government employees from using the social network, and the Pentagon has already told military personnel to remove the application from their phones. Perhaps TikTok (and, for that matter, all data collection technology companies) presents a threat to our privacy and security.
For his part, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that users of the social network risk having their data end up in "the hands of the Chinese Communist Party. And while the application has insisted on numerous occasions that the data it collects is stored outside of Beijing, there is a possibility that the Xi Jinping government will force ByteDance to hand over data about its users under local law. China's National Security Law of 2017 obliges any organization or citizen to "support, assist and cooperate with state intelligence work. ByteDance CEO Zhang Yimig has insisted that his company has never released information about Americans to Chinese authorities.
The fear is that TikTok will turn its powerful vacuum into an information-filled network of images and details of unsuspecting Americans to feed Beijing's appetite. China's extensive data collection on its own population has further increased fears of its willingness to collect such information from abroad for its own purposes. TikTok would not only be a symbol of China's rise and penetration into the United States, but it would mean a new battle in the war between Washington and Beijing.
It is not only concern about possible Chinese intrusion into American data that has made Trump want to ban the application. TikTok has become a symbol of the new challenge that an increasingly technology-enabled China presents to American hegemony in the technology sector. Today, the Internet is run by U.S. corporations such as Alphabet, Amazon, and Facebook, and TikTok is the first Chinese company to truly break through into global consciousness, something that Alibaba or Baidu, for example, had failed to do.
Trump's rise and fierce grandstanding changed Beijing's role from a partner, albeit a troublesome one, to an enemy who steals secrets. The Chinese president has shown his strength in foreign affairs, while intensifying state control with new technologies, from data collection to facial recognition, as well as repression in Xijiang and Hong Kong.
The Chinese dictatorship blocks Facebook and Twitter and does not allow its people to decide what they want to say, publish or watch.
The motivation for blocking TikTok from the United States is very different, but it leads to the same place, where the state determines what we can and cannot do on the internet.