The side-effects of the TikTok tussle - Hindustan Times
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The side-effects of the TikTok tussle

The Economist
Jun 18, 2024 08:00 AM IST

As the app’s future hangs in the balance, the ramifications of the battle are becoming clearer

JOE BIDEN’S re-election campaign wants you to know that the president is funny. To prove it, examples of his hilarity are posted almost daily to his TikTok page. One video, peppered with fire emojis, shows him cracking jokes about Donald Trump. Viewers have their own gag: isn’t he trying to ban this app?

TikTok app logo is seen in this illustration taken, August 22, 2022. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration(REUTERS) PREMIUM
TikTok app logo is seen in this illustration taken, August 22, 2022. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration(REUTERS)

The government says it is not banning TikTok but has given it an ultimatum: sell to a suitable non-Chinese owner by January or shut down. It deems TikTok, which is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese firm, to be controlled by a “foreign adversary” and to be a national-security threat. Politicians accuse China of using TikTok to steal Americans’ data and spread propaganda.

TikTok denies these charges and is suing. So are its users. They argue that divestment is “simply not possible” (China could block it) and Congress is “singling out and banning TikTok”, in violation of the First Amendment rights of its 170m American users. Imposing restrictions on speech in favour of national security is an “extraordinarily high bar”, says Ashley Gorski of the American Civil Liberties Union, an advocacy group. It requires concrete evidence that TikTok poses an imminent, serious threat—something Ms Gorski and others argue the government has not provided. Lawmakers were briefed on TikTok’s risks in private, but little has been made public.

The dispute will probably reach the Supreme Court. In the meantime, the ramifications of the tussle are becoming clearer. They go well beyond TikTok.

The law includes criteria for a president to add other companies. Any platform with more than 1m monthly active users in America and at least 20% owned by a foreigner based in one of the four “adversary” countries—China, Iran, North Korea and Russia—could be targeted. Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democratic congressman and one of the bill’s co-sponsors, says this brings social media up to date with foreign-ownership limits on other media.

Some worry that the scope of the law is too broad. Video-games and other messaging services are potentially in the line of fire. The government could widen the definition of adversary countries, says Corbin Barthold, at TechFreedom, a think-tank. Many expect other countries to cite America’s move against TikTok as justification for targeting foreign apps they disagree with, potentially further fragmenting the global internet. Shutting TikTok in America would be “a gift to authoritarians around the world”, warns Ramya Krishnan, at the Knight Institute, a free-speech centre at Columbia University.

TikTok’s efforts to oppose the legislation may have subjected it to further regulatory scrutiny. It sent notifications to its users urging them to call Congress and “stop a TikTok shutdown”. Mr Krishnamoorthi claims Capitol Hill was “flooded” with calls, many from children, some of whom allegedly did not know what a congressman was. He is calling for an inquiry by the Federal Trade Commission, a trustbuster, into whether that broke child-privacy laws. “The power that a foreign adversary has with that app was underscored by their influence campaign,” he says. TikTok denies these allegations and says the calls were from “voting-age people”.

The firm insists that it is doing its best to co-operate with the government and has protected Americans’ data “in a way that no other company has done”. In its lawsuit TikTok claims it gave the authorities an “extraordinary” option to suspend the app if it was found to violate provisions of a draft national-security agreement negotiated through the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a watchdog. The company says the Biden administration has ignored this effort, and the $2bn-plus it has invested in Project Texas, a collaboration with Oracle, a tech giant, to wall off Americans’ data from ByteDance.

Mr Krishnamoorthi is unimpressed. The government worked for “years” with TikTok to try to mitigate national-security risks, he says. “You couldn’t trust anything that they said about Project Texas.”

For now, Mr Biden’s campaign can meme away on TikTok throughout the election season. Mr Trump—who tried to ban TikTok under an executive order in 2020 but has since reversed his position—launched on the app on June 1st. The MAGA super PAC has already entered the ring. It would all be hilarious if the stakes weren’t so high.

Editor’s note (June 7th 2024): This piece has been updated to include Donald Trump’s launch on TikTok.

Stay on top of American politics with The US in brief, our daily newsletter with fast analysis of the most important electoral stories, and Checks and Balance, a weekly note from our Lexington columnist that examines the state of American democracy and the issues that matter to voters.

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on www.economist.com

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