TikTok has been accused of collecting data on Americans and sending it to the Chinese government. China, contrarily, denounces the U.S. as intending to block Chinese technology in order to protect American companies. As President Trump demands a cut and Microsoft seeks to purchase the popular Chinese app of TiTok, China threatens to retaliate. Tension between the two countries arises; many questions concerning cybersecurity and internet use/standards remain.
Trump demands the U.S. should get a “substantial portion” of the purchase price of the TikTok's US unit from a sale of TikTok to an American company. He claims that he will ban the app, which is owned by China's ByteDance, if there is no sale by September 15, 2020: "The United States should get a very large percentage of that price, because we're making it possible." (TikTok's has 80 million active American users.) Trump’s request for payment to the US Treasury complicates the deal as legal experts view his proposal as unorthodox and in need of regulatory approval. Some say this cut is just a payback for the US and its companies, claiming China has stolen intellectual property from them. The situation gets complicated as economy, politics, foreign policies, principles of democracy, and national security all become mixed in the picture.
In addition to TikTok's US business, Microsoft is also negotiating to buy its operations in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. In the event that the deal does not happen, Trump’s ban on TikTok may start by having Apple and Google remove TikTok from their online platforms, in other words, by adding TikTok's owner ByteDance to a Commerce Department entity list, and banning US entities from working with it. An alternative may be to require U.S. internet service providers to block access to TikTok's servers. Either bought or banned, TikTok is encountering a serious crash with the U.S.
On the other hand, TikTok may very well preserve its most valuable assets, an effective algorithm and a pool of creators. Those assets are not easy to acquire or transport. TikTok’s core algorithm selects videos for the central feed users upon opening the app, called the “for you page” or FYP, developed by ByteDance’s Chinese engineers using a suite of shared software tools, “zhongtai,” or “central platform.” This golden goose is what makes TikTok so addictive and compelling. Now that goose is up for grabs, or not.
An open and global internet where data moves freely has been the belief of democracies, as opposed to China’s censorship. Now the Trump Administration seems to be following China’s autocratic measures and assuming that the only safe computer networks and data flows are within its own borders. That may induce a fallacy in which U.S. tech industry can simply cease to do business all over the world. That may also reveal problematic cybersecurity tactics.
To protect Americans’ data, the federal government is to define more rigorous standards to address data protection protocols and consequences of breaking relevant rules.
Will the TikTok sale happen by September 15? Will America’s cybersecurity law look more and more like China’s? Will storing data within a nation’s border provide solutions for data breaches or security issues? Do all the hullabaloos amount to mere gesticulations of politicians’ power play or nations’ inflated protectionism? We shall see.