An app that has captivated Generation Z with the ability to create and share videos has been dragged into the US-China power struggle, becoming its latest flashpoint.
The current social media darling, TikTok, boasts 800 million active users. Reports value it at up to US$50 billion (S$68.4 billion). Considering that its Beijing-based app maker launched it worldwide only two years ago, that represents huge growth. Contrast that to the 14-year-old Twitter: “only” 330 million users and worth a “mere” US$35 billion.
Twitter’s most famous user, United States President Donald Trump, has now declared war on TikTok. This follows hard on the heels of US actions against other Chinese technology companies, most notably Huawei and ZTE in 2018.
Firing the opening salvo on July 7, the US announced that it was considering banning TikTok. Various government departments and the US armed forces barred their employees from even downloading TikTok. On Aug 6, Trump issued an executive order prohibiting “transactions” with TikTok, which includes transferring data to and from the app, and made it illegal for Apple and Google to offer the app in their stores. On Sept 27, a US district judge temporarily blocked that executive order.
Meanwhile, Trump has been pressing for TikTok to be sold to a US company, under the pain of US market exclusion: in effect, the US government was conducting a hostile takeover of a Chinese technology giant. His efforts resulted in a consortium, led by Oracle and Walmart, making a deal for a 20 per cent share of TikTok’s international operations. In the space of a few months, through executive fiat, US companies are on the brink of acquiring a substantial stake in one of China’s tech giants. It is a windfall for Oracle’s Larry Ellison, who also happens to be a huge Trump supporter.
That US-China battle will drag on. Meanwhile, for the rest of us, there are three larger issues to grapple with.
Social media apps are consensual spyware
The first issue concerns social media and national security.
Social media is, at its heart, a system of collecting and monetising personal data. Instead of money, users pay for the service with the currency of the digital age: personal data such as purchasing habits, political views, and preferences ranging from food to fashion. That data is then sold or used, often with consent of all users.
Is TikTok particularly nefarious? Early on, researchers found that it had sniffed data from the clipboard every few keystrokes, which can contain sensitive information such as passwords. TikTok says it was an anti-spam feature, which it later removed. But US apps have also fallen short of expected behaviour: Facebook, for instance, was caught stealing location information last year, even when users had explicitly opted out of such tracking.
Viewed in that light, TikTok is probably no better or worse than any other social media app. Most, if not all apps use our data with no transparency, no oversight and no legislation. And any government, including their intelligence agencies, can easily buy such data.
The US argument against TikTok is this: it is a Chinese app. The concern is that it shares – or could be compelled to share – users’ data with the Chinese government, which has wide-ranging legal powers to compel Mainland-based companies to hand over data on demand.
The US, on the other hand, contends that it does not have the same sweeping powers. That is dubious. Famously in 2015, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) requested Apple to unlock an iPhone recovered from a gunman. Apple resisted, and the case went to court. The FBI then dropped the request before the case could be ruled on, because it managed to unlock the iPhone through different means. However, the FBI’s position was that it had the legal right to make the request. Legal scholars still debate whether a technology company has the right to resist a similar request from a US government agency such as Homeland Security, the Central Intelligence Agency or any state security apparatus.
The point really is this: no compelling evidence exists proving that TikTok is a national security risk. The situation brings to mind US actions against Huawei and ZTE, where no consensus prevails that those companies represented a threat to the US.
Beijing led the way in banning US apps
The second issue concerns banning technology.
Before the Internet, governments controlled newspapers, TV broadcasters and radio stations, easily allowing them to shape public opinion. But social media has democratised thought leadership, with the state surrendering control of mindshare to celebrities and influencers.
Many governments clamped down, most notably China. Behind the Great Firewall of China, you cannot access anything foreign, such as Google, YouTube, Facebook, Wikipedia, Netflix, Instagram, Twitch, Twitter or WhatsApp. Beijing has even blocked Zoom.
Internet censorship is consistent with China’s philosophy, encapsulated in Deng Xiaoping’s well-known maxim: “If you open a window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in.” To the Communist Party of China, information freedom brings many harmful ideologies.
But China has recognised social media’s utility, and created its own versions. WeChat replaces Facebook, Weibo takes the place of Twitter, and QQ fulfils the role of WhatsApp. Even Tinder has a Chinese counterpart: Momo.
While Beijing banned US technology companies from Chinese cyberspace, previous US administrations were willing to tolerate restricted access as part of doing business with China, where it benefits from the country’s economic growth in other markets.
And while American apps were more popular globally, this policy worked well for the US. TikTok is the first Chinese app to threaten this supremacy. TikTok’s user base is more than double that of Snapchat’s 300 million and is fast catching up to Instagram’s one billion.
The current US administration also tends to see things differently: if Beijing bans US technology, Washington will ban Chinese technology. When considering US actions against TikTok, Huawei or ZTE, should we put aside notions of national security, censorship and statements of high moral purpose, and see this as an old-fashioned trade war and power play?
Singapore’s role in this geopolitical conflict
The third issue is us: the users and citizens.
The US-China trade war is a sidebar to the growing story of data weaponisation. For the first time in human history, governments and multinationals are locked in a titanic struggle over our spending, time and opinions. Who can the citizen look to, for protection?
The usual answer is: the law. But that may not be enough.
Technology companies employ Silicon Valley’s and Zhongguancun’s best to maximise the use of our data. They can launch and iterate business models and products to market quickly.
Governments, however, do not work like that. Laws are proposed, debated, and passed only after new technology has revealed fresh problems. The legislative process can take years, by which time the harm it has sought to address may have morphed into something completely different.
So, in this brave new world, citizens cannot depend solely on governments. We must assume individual responsibility. If we install an app, we must think about what information it wants to access and whether we are comfortable with that.
It is not a quandary over which mobile users lose much sleep because of the app’s sheer convenience. That needs to change. Just as the human race has developed a healthy suspicion of politicians, so we must now learn to be sceptical of social media.
It is in this context that we look at TikTok’s owner, ByteDance. It is reportedly looking to establish a beachhead in Singapore, investing billions and recruiting hundreds. Insiders also say that ByteDance has applied for a digital bank licence here.
As Trump continues to wage war on Chinese tech companies, some of them will likely need to relocate from the Mainland. Singapore, an English-speaking international city-state, with excellent infrastructure and close links to all of Asia and the US, is an ideal choice.
But even as we celebrate this, Singapore must continue to balance its relationships with the two superpowers.
Beyond the geopolitical sensitivities, Singapore needs to ready itself for the bombardment that having the world’s greatest technology companies here will bring. While welcoming social media giants such as Facebook, Google, TikTok and WeChat, we will need to avoid the ills that come with social media.
So far, our answer has been to pass laws to control social media usage, such as the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act. But even the most sharply honed laws are but blunt instruments. Regulators and legislators will have the unenviable task of balancing the duty to protect citizens with the equally crucial need to attract more Facebooks and TikToks to our shore.
The better way must be for us to evolve as a society. Used appropriately, social media connects people and enriches lives. We must use social media sensibly and, as customers, demand change where our rights are infringed. We must stop being triggered by the slightest thing, which makes us easy prey for algorithms to detect and influence. We must discern fake from real, so that we cannot be manipulated.
In short, it is time to defuse this ticking time bomb.
A version of this article ran in the Business Times on 3 October 2020 under the same headline.