The TikTok Ban That Was

It is immensely concerning when mobile apps start being censored in the land of the free. Trump, ever the dealmaker, had no plans to completely outlaw the app. In corporate parlance, he was merely posturing, throwing a deadline at ByteDance – TikTok’s Chinese parent, so that it could finalise a deal with a suitable US partner sooner. By Sunday midnight in the USA, any new downloads of TikTok were to be blocked. WeChat, another one of ByteDance’s app, was to be completely wiped out of the United States: no transactions were to be allowed on the chatting and payment app. Previously, the Chinese firm was supposed to come to terms with a $30 billion offer from Microsoft. Later, Oracle came into the fold, with the plan in motion that Larry Ellison’s company would manage the software cloud and data backup services for this outrageously popular app. Walmart, too, is now touted as a potential partner.

Is Trump a megalomaniac bent on showing the recalcitrant Chinese how powerful he is? Or is this aggressive posturing for the benefit of the American public, to rile up hyper-nationalism against the Chinese Communist Party to appease his voter base further before the impending elections? The decision obviously has been taken due to a multitude of reasons. No matter how impulsive Trump might be, no matter how much he might appreciate the fact that the founder of Oracle raised campaign funds for him, he cannot just wake up tomorrow ordering a slew of apps or businesses to be banned. The American constitution enshrines more freedoms than any other country’s constitution. The right to do business and the right to hear, watch, view, access any reading material, videos, or apps is virtually limitless. I use the word virtually because this right comes under intense scrutiny when it harms the national security of the country.

While the USA Patriot Act acts as a bulwark against all would-be saboteurs and instigators trying to ferment dissent on the bidding of other great powers, the USA Freedom Act ensures that the rights and, more so, the privacy of citizens is protected. In fact, the Freedom Act was enacted in 2015 when reports surfaced that United States’ premier intelligence service, the NSA, was wantonly and brazenly collecting data from the phones of all Americans and had the ability to not only monitor phone calls but also track people’s movements.

It should not be surprising to anyone who owns a half-decent smartphone that through the right malware, anyone’s phone can be used as a conduit to monitor their activities. Facial recognition software can be used via your phone’s camera to record you. If this shocks you, then you probably also need to be made aware that your favourite companies – such as Apple, Facebook and Google – have the ability and the means to know about every aspect of your life – things which even your closest friends and family members might not know of. If you are depending on WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption to ensure that your messages are only read by those whom you have sent them to, you may want to consider the fact that an Israeli company quite recently hacked into the phone of some WhatsApp users, using an innocent voice call as a dummy.

Tracking technologies are frequently used by police states such as Saudi Arabia and China to be in the loop about their citizens’ activities so that any uprising can be quelled in its very infancy. It is because of some innovative technologies developed by startups in the West that China has been able to successfully control Uighur Muslim rebellion in its Xinjiang province. People, for example, who downloaded a Quran app on their phone were immediately flagged by an algorithm, arrested, and sent to the state’s detention center. Only after realising the dangerous potential for control via certain features in certain apps, and their understanding of how much data about their own citizens the NSA was collecting, did US agencies and lawmakers become terrified at the prospect of a foreign government being able to collect and use the same data. What’s more, they realised that the foreign powers could track not only US citizens but the power bearers as well – bureaucrats, military personnel, judges, and lawmakers. They began to fear the use of information gleaned through an app like TikTok to blackmail and coerce them.

The United States government of course tries to rein in its own technological giants, having questioned all those behemoths – even Amazon – in the Congress. But it knows that since these are US Corporations, they are essentially beholden to US laws, so that if they willfully share sensitive information with any foreign entity, they can be penalised for it and can even be shut down. ByteDance cannot be shut down because it is a Chinese entity. Even now, the Chinese government has entered into the fray and has updated an old law from 2008, effectively meaning that ByteDance would have to have the explicit permission of the Chinese government before selling its proprietary algorithm which makes the app so popular. This has made the situation even more complicated. After Trump’s Sunday deadline, ByteDance, Oracle and Walmart rushed to finalise a deal. They had even gotten Trump’s blessing by Saturday afternoon, but ByteDance cannot float its new TikTok global in a pre-IPO sale of up to 20% each to the two American firms until it gets CCP’s assent too.

All this hulabulla has been created around Tik Tok because no other non-US app, and that too a Chinese one, has a 100 million users in the United States of America. Trump’s goal is not to shut down this avenue for thousands of creators to make a living through the app. Even though he has opened a Triller account and is encouraging others to so the same, he has only threatened and not enforced the ban because he is a savvy businessman who understands that trends have to be capitalised on because banning books, videos and, in this case, apps only exacerbate people’s desire for them. With the approach of a consummate dealmaker, he is benefitting the American people by giving them more entertainment and a few amongst them a source to make more money. He is creating future value for Oracle, Walmart and any potential investors who want to benefit from the new round of funding for the new company. Moreover, ByteDance would obviously make a gargantuan sum from selling shares of TikTok Global. The Donald even wants $5 billion to be donated to the Department of Education as a brokerage fee. How generous, but only if President Xi Jinping is willing to play ball.

The author works in alternative financing on Wall Street, and has a fascination with modern history and politics.