Commentary / World

Meet Trump's new political football: TikTok

by Tae Kim

Bloomberg

It’s official. TikTok has become a political football.

The surging social media app, owned by Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd., is ensnared in the escalating tensions between China and its global rivals. Last week, India banned TikTok along with dozens of other Chinese apps, citing national security concerns. And on Monday during a Fox News interview, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo mentioned for the first time that the Trump administration is "certainly looking at” banning TikTok and other Chinese apps, warning of data-privacy issues. President Donald Trump echoed those statements on Tuesday.

TikTok has said it keeps user data securely in the United States with backups in Singapore, and that it has never provided data to the Chinese government. In a further effort to calm stateside angst, TikTok hired former Walt Disney Co. executive Kevin Mayer this year as its chief executive officer.

Still, there may be real national security implications stemming from a Chinese company owning a major American social network. ByteDance has been under review by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. for its 2017 purchase of lip-synching startup Musical.ly, which was popular in the U.S. And it's now said to be facing scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department over whether it has met its commitments to protect children's privacy in a previous settlement. But before the country takes the dramatic step of banning a Chinese competitor (particularly one whose users helped prank the U.S. president earlier this year), the White House should spell out its reasoning. Otherwise, the move looks like political bluster.

Some have argued that TikTok should be banned in the U.S. because Facebook Inc.’s social media site is not allowed in China. But such tit-for-tat protectionism would be short-sighted policy. American companies should win in the marketplace through better innovation, not by government assistance. Over the long run, the domestic technology industry is far better served having vigorous competition — and TikTok is certainly that — which pushes U.S. companies to create better products. Plus, a TikTok ban risks Chinese retaliation against American companies inside its borders. The list of potential targets that generate a significant portion of their sales in China is long — including Apple Inc., Starbucks Corp. and Intel Corp.

On a relative basis, TikTok isn’t an obvious target in terms of data collection. Its focus is sharing creative short-form videos, like dancing and lip-syncing. The app’s algorithm surfaces relevant content, using metrics like how many similar videos you watched. And compared to an app like Facebook, TikTok doesn’t require a large amount of data entry (at least not manually).

There’s also the value of the app itself, which has become a global cultural institution. From my experience, TikTok tends to be less filled with hate and disinformation, and genuinely funnier than most other platforms. (Though its avoidance of controversial topics isn’t always beneficial.) The app is also surfacing new stars: For example, a relatively unknown chef in Philadelphia was able to attract millions of viewers to his cooking videos in a matter of days. And this McFarland family’s viral Dad dancing video landed the family ad deals with Taco Bell and Gillette.

A ban might not make sense on a purely political level either. TikTok is regularly on top of the Apple App Store’s most downloaded rankings. According to Sensor Tower, it has been downloaded 165 million times in the U.S. EMarketer estimates there will be 45 million regular TikTok users in the country by year-end. Restricting access could enrage millions of voters (or future voters, anyway).

To avoid that, the U.S. government needs to show the evidence it has for being concerned about TikTok. Otherwise, given what we know today, the flood of teen outrage that’s sure to follow any TikTok ban would be justified.

Tae Kim is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology.

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