FAC hands Biden permission to ban TikTok

TikTok looks to be on increasingly thin ice in the US.
2 March 2023

The war of the US government against the Chinese-based and wildly popular video-sharing platform TikTok took another giant leap forward in the dying days of February, when legislation that would make it easier for President Biden to ban the app outright was advanced – and fast-tracked – by the Foreign Affairs Committee.

The platform (where, if you have enough free hours in the day, you can watch camp men cooking, cats “talking” to their owners, any number of people copying Jennifer Ortega’s Wednesday Addams dance, and Gen X people explaining quite how awesome they are and why), has already been banned on US government cellphones, and EU government cellphones, too, and it would be tempting to think that government types in both jurisdictions simply have a fairy tale-style vendetta against fun.

In reality of course, it’s far more than that. The US has been embroiled in a commercial cold war against China since the Trump administration slapped down Huawei and added arguably ridiculous restrictions on its ability to produce and sell cellphones for the US market.

An increasingly sinophobic stance.

Since President Biden came to power, the action against China has been less flamboyant – but more actively significant and sustained. Economic protectionist measures like the Chips Act, designed to kickstart a rejuvenation of the domestic semiconductor industry have come with heavily sinophobic penalties, preventing potential beneficiaries expanding into China after getting the cash.

That’s unpalatable enough on its own to some companies, but it’s also involved several potential recipients of funding seriously considering unlacing commercial and manufacturing relationships in China that have benefited the world for decades – particularly when it comes to the market-friendly prince of consumer electronics.

Let there be no misunderstanding – part of the reason why so many tech manufacturers have established long and profitable relationships in China is because the cost of manufacturing labor there is lower than it would have to be in many Western nations. But any egalitarian effect of the pull-out of Western companies is entirely secondary to the main event, which is a push to “rebalance” the semiconductor industry – regarded as more important than the oil industry for the next generation – to allow the US to remain a relevant economic superpower into the next half-century.

What has any of that to do with banning TikTok? The argument for doing so is that the platform, owned by ByteDance, which has its headquarters in China, changes depending on who you listen to – a fairly sure sign that people are scrabbling for reasons to justify an action. On the one hand, the platform (the same one that has all the camp cooks and chatty cats, remember?) could be used to recruit anti-Western operatives.

Yes, really.

The arguments against TikTok.

Now, it’s potentially true that any large and worldwide audience that can be convinced to follow the latest TikTok dance challenge or even, for instance, the “naked challenge” might not have the most sophisticated philosophical defences against the wiles of an engaged misinformation or disinformation campaign. And the Western world has seen in its relatively recent history the impact that such campaigns can have when promulgated on social media.

But that’s the problem with the argument that TikTok is particularly likely to be used as a mouthpiece for the conversion of young minds to anticapitalism. We’ve seen the impact of misinformation campaigns waged through other, Western-based, social media platforms. The Brexit referendum in the UK was largely swayed by activists on Facebook, and has resulted in seven years (and counting) of governmental stagnation and administrative torpor.

Similarly, without in any sense claiming that the election of Donald Trump was illegitimate, his surge into office was documented as benefiting massively by his presence on Twitter and an effective fundraising campaign on Facebook. What’s more, the insurrection of January 6, 2021was largely co-ordinated by Western-based social media. So the idea that Chinese-based TikTok poses a particular national security threat on the basis of its powerful recruitment-fu falls entirely apart.

The second strand of thinking that leads members of the US government to want to ban TikTok is slightly more subtle, if not in any real sense more rational. There is, in China, a rule that states that if it decides it wants or needs to, the government – the Communist, authoritarian government – can demand any data held by companies with their headquarters in the country. That’s the basis of an ongoing spat between US lawmakers and TikTok executives, where the lawmakers demand that the platform give them a guarantee that no US users’ data will ever end up in the hands of the Chinese government, and the executives repeatedly refuse to give such an assurance.

It’s possible that the idea seems rational – nobody wants the data of, for instance, political movers and shakers, ending up in the hands of the Chinese government. Or the FBI, for that matter (Remember Hillary Clinton’s emails?)

The point that’s frequently missed on this is that the US government has similar powers to demand social media users’ data if it believes it may be justified.

The rebalancing of power.

While it would be an egregious mistake to paint the Chinese government as any kind of innocent party in almost any situation, TikTok in this instance is being – probably unfairly – used as a scapegoat, and a stick with which to hit China, and Chinese business’ reputation as part of an ongoing quest to rebalance the technology world, and then, potentially, tip it jusssst slightly in favor of the US.

Which is why, for instance, the legislation uses TikTok as its spearhead, giving President Biden the power to effectively ban the app completely from the US (despite the large number of US-based content creators and their audiences – seriously, the talking cats are so funny), and then broadens out its remit to “crack down on other China-related economic activity” (to quote CNN). It’s essentially a big legal stick with which to bash Chinese businesses, more or less exclusively on the basis that they are Chinese businesses.

Seal the deal?

Predictably, the move to legalize the banning of TikTok under the Deterring America’s Technological Adversaries Act, less terrifyingly known as H.R. 1153, has met with staunch criticism from some lawmakers – and some civil liberties groups. But given the history of the Biden administration in relation to Chinese industry since it was sworn in, there’s a sense that a bill that gave it the chance to swing a big stick against America’s Technological Adversaries might be legislation the President would be quite happy to see added to the statute books.

TikTok meanwhile continues to call for calm and negotiation. Company spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter said that TikTok had been negotiating in good faith for a national security deal, specifically designed to dispel national security fears, and that the Biden administration would be better served by completing the deal.

“A US ban on TikTok is a ban on the export of American culture and values to the billion-plus people who use our service worldwide,” she said. “We’re disappointed to see this rushed piece of legislation move forward, despite its considerable negative impact on the free speech rights of millions of Americans who use and love TikTok. We are two years and $1.5 billion dollars deep into a project to go above and beyond existing law to secure the US version of the TikTok platform.”

The fate of the platform in the US – and potentially in countries that want to consider themselves friends of the US may ultimately come down to whether any real justification of its unique status as a threat emerges, and whether the Biden administration sides with Democratic detractors of the bill, or finds it simply too useful a piece of legislation to ignore.