TikTok banned: for security or control?

For Americans, freedom of commerce stands out as one of the most valued of our rights. However, recent actions taken by the United States government to shut down the Chinese social media platform TikTok have proven that, when faced with the decision of upholding either the right to compete in a fair and open global marketplace or the stranglehold American tech companies hold over social media, ostensibly capitalist governments will throw their guiding principles out the door. 

The specific action the Trump administration took to threaten ByteDance, the conglomerate that owns TikTok, was to give them an ultimatum: either sell the U.S. division of TikTok to an American bidder within 45 days of the notice or be banned from the US marketplace. The motivation for such an action is clear as day when the story surrounding the battle to ban TikTok developed further: it scared the U.S. social media monopoly. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg aggressively lobbied for the U.S. government to take action against TikTok, amplifying claims that it would be a national security risk. Interestingly enough, none of that concern was expressed by him in 2015, when the direct precursor of TikTok, Musical.ly (still based in China), started operations in the U.S. 

The U.S.-based company Microsoft has negotiated with ByteDance to acquire TikTok’s U.S. operation, thus putting U.S. user data in the hands of an American company. User data, which is data collected by free social media platforms on their users’ browsing habits, is one of the main ways that social media platforms generate revenue, and ceding control of TikTok’s American user data is clearly one of the main points of contention for the Trump administration. 

What this means is that the American government has used its authority to directly intervene in the global economy in pursuit of national goals, setting a precedent for all foreign companies to be aware of entering the “free” market of America.

The nature of this development is indicative of America’s fear of a truly free market economy. When concentration of capital is siphoned away from American companies, its state apparatus dramatically changes course to protect its monopoly, letting in a flood of economic nativism that suddenly permeates across every sphere of life. Cold War era rhetoric about the dangers of letting a mysterious “enemy” spy on American citizens is pulled from the vocabulary of McCarthyism, and all talk of letting markets guide life is sidelined by militant denunciations of the economic entity known as the “other”, which vaguely threatens everything an American is expected to hold dear. During the Cold War, this mysterious “other” was the Soviet Union, and currently, this “other” is the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Both threatened the state of American business. The difference is that the PRC participates in the exact same economic system as the United States. Real faith in capitalism would see Americans welcoming foreign competition, as competition is supposed to benefit the consumer and speed up economic development. The opposite is suggested by the way the American government has acted.

When examined critically, it is true that TikTok’s harvesting of user data is dangerous when the wrong people gain access to that data. After all, what if your data is sold to unscrupulous buyers, or used by governments to surveil you? The main problem applying this observation is that it already is. American tech companies sell the exact same user data to any buyer they want, and have no obligation to ethically distribute it. In fact, companies like Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook even trade their data to make more comprehensive databases. They also collaborate with police agencies and federal law enforcement regularly. So then, is Facebook a public enemy? 

Not according to the government, of course, because the bottom line is that data harvesting and unchecked surveillance is completely fine when it’s done by Americans. When that double standard becomes visible, it is apparent that any action taken against TikTok’s owners does nothing but consolidate the power of ownership in the hands of the corporations and institutions that already hold near-monopoly level control in the industry of data harvesting. 

Make no mistake, TikTok’s threatened exclusion from the American market will not make America more secure. It is an action taken by the heads of western business against its eastern counterpart in order to secure one of its most fruitful industries against competition. Not only is this move a hypocritical misdirection by the U.S. government, it is also entirely antithetical to conditions that would allow unfettered capitalism, a mainstay of the American ideology, to thrive.

By Jason Wu, Opinion editor
Photo courtesy of Motionstock