If you’re an active TikTok user, you’ve probably had to deal with the heart-stopping news that the popular short-form video app would be banned more than once. After an endless number of famous creators such as Dixie D’Amelio and Tony Lopez expressed their goodbyes and bashed President Donald Trump for his executive order banning the app, the final partnership deal that tech company Oracle hatched with Tiktok seemed to be the end of the whole mess -- or was it?
With an app that boasts 100 million active users in the U.S alone and more than 2 billion international users, any action related to TikTok has big consequences. It’s straddled in the middle of a geopolitical struggle between two of the world’s most powerful countries, the U.S. and China, both of which seek to maintain a stronghold over the influential social media network.
The app has been around since 2016, which raises the question of why this controversy is beginning four years later.
There are several theories as to why.
National Security Concerns
Although the U.S. and China are neck-in-neck in terms of economic powers, they couldn’t be on more opposite sides in terms of relationship. Recently, Trump was especially hard on China in the wake of the Trade War, and further caused tensions by blaming China for COVID-19, labeling it the “China virus.”
In terms of data, FBI Director Christopher Wray noted in his speech on July 7 that China posed the greatest long-term threat to the U.S.’s national security, mentioning that “the FBI is opening a new China-related counterintelligence case about every 10 hours.”
Specific to TikTok, the concerning issue is that TikTok is owned and developed specifically by a Chinese company called ByteDance, which is the world’s most valuable tech startup estimated to be worth more than $100 billion.
National security concerns about US data collection began to pile up early in the app’s existence and in response, TikTok quickly tried to distance themselves from China by pulling out of the Chinese market, hiring a former Disney executive as their CEO (who has since resigned) and moving user data storage to U.S. and Singapore instead of mainland China. Issues seemed to have resolved.
That all changed when Trump suddenly signed an executive order that forced either the sale of TikTok to a U.S company, or to ban its use altogether. His reasoning tied back to China as a potential security and data privacy threat, saying that U.S. citizen data collection could “potentially [allow] China to track the locations of Federal employees and contractors, build dossiers of personal information for blackmail and conduct corporate espionage.”The Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross agreed and further supported Trump’s reasonings.
“Today’s actions prove once again that President Trump will do everything in his power to guarantee our national security and protect Americans from the threats of the Chinese Communist Party,” Ross said. “At the President’s direction, we have taken significant action to combat China’s malicious collection of American citizens’ personal data, while promoting our national values, democratic rules-based norms and aggressive enforcement of U.S. laws and regulations.”
Trump continues to take an offensive stance against China in the wake of one of the most contentious election campaigns yet. But when he says national security and data privacy concerns, what exactly does he mean?
TikTok’s personalized "for you page" consisting of an endless stream of recommended videos comes from the large amounts of user data that ByteDance uses to make a specifically curated algorithm. Even though data servers are kept off mainland China’s soils, China still has a national intelligence law that requires all Chinese firms to cooperate with government intelligence services at request. This means that if the Communist Party requests U.S. user data to be handed over for political reasons, ByteDance can’t refuse.
Even in 2019, TikTok was caught trying to censor content related to Tiananmen Square protests and Tibetan independence that was disapproved of by China. Although ByteDance says old censorship rules no longer apply for overseas markets, the algorithm still makes it unclear as to how content is being presented, as new instances of censorship occur, like China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
Despite all this, no evidence shows that ByteDance ever shared TikTok U.S. user data with China and TikTok denies ever having done so. They even filed a federal suit against the ban, arguing that that the ban didn’t follow due process in giving ByteDance a chance to respond to allegations and that no proof could be shown.
ByteDance reaffirmed their mission to “continue to increase our investments in global markets around the world” despite having faced “all kinds of complex and unimaginable difficulties” in expanding globally.
China’s foreign ministry also reproached Trump’s targeting of TikTok, and their state-run Xinhua news agency said the executive order was similar to “modern piracy.” Public opinion is divided on the issue. Specifically, in the U.S., there are those who see ByteDance founder Zhang Yiming as a victim of unfair advances by Trump and those who see Zhang as a “traitor” for breaking under pressure to make a sale.
But as a company, ByteDance isn’t critical to the CCP like Huawei is, and experts believe that Beijing wouldn’t want to risk appearances of meddling in the U.S. presidential election. There’s also little they can do in retaliation, with almost every U.S. tech firm already being banned.
What’s up with Oracle?
Just two days before Trump’s ban deadline, Oracle came through with the winning bid to take over stewardship of TikTok’s U.S. operations after ByteDance turned down a bid from Microsoft. TikTok employees and users could breathe a sigh of relief for the moment, but is TikTok any safer than it was before?
Oracle is a computer software company that took an interest in TikTok to boost its cloud-computing business and kick start it onto a competitive level with tech giants Amazon and Microsoft. They mostly focus on business clients, usually as government contractors, and have almost no experience running a social-media platform. They were born out of Project Oracle, which was a CIA initiated project. Having a social media company with user data tied so closely to the government could potentially be a conflict of interest or a data privacy concern. Another possible conflict of interest is that the Oracle co-founder, Larry Ellison, threw a fundraiser at his home for Trump. The Chief Executive, Safra Catz, also worked on the executive committee for the Trump transition team in 2016. The President voiced his support of the deal.
“Well I think Oracle is a great company and I think its owner is a tremendous guy, a tremendous person. I think that Oracle would be certainly somebody that could handle it,” the president said when asked about Oracle’s potential interest.
Besides the company’s affiliations, the deal alone is enough to raise a few concerns. For one, there has been no sale, only an unclear partnership between Oracle and the U.S. TikTok Office, in which Oracle is unlikely to take over any major functions. Microsoft’s deal would have been tougher and fully severed U.S. TikTok from Asia and Europe, but Oracle’s deal leaves it still mostly intact. Microsoft emphasized this in their statement announcing that they did not win the bid.
“We would have made significant changes to ensure the service met the highest standards for security, privacy, online safety and combating misinformation,” the company stated. “We look forward to seeing how the service evolves in these important areas.”
Having Oracle as TikTok’s new host raises limitations on the scope of what they can do in light of this statement. For one, it means that China can’t directly take user data ( although they likely couldn’t have before given the app’s U.S. headquarters). Oracle can also do code inspections, but because they aren’t writing the code or controlling any of the algorithm or moderation, ByteDance may still have slight control over pushing or censoring certain content or adding malware.
As Facebook security chief Alex Stamos said via Twitter, “A deal where Oracle takes over hosting without source code and significant operational changes would not address any of the legitimate concerns about TikTok and the White House accepting such a deal would demonstrate that this exercise was pure grift.”
The power and effect that Oracle will have on TikTok still remains unclear, as well as the influence that ByteDance may still hold. As for Trump’s intentions, it may appear as if national security or data privacy were not his chief concerns in his decision to ban TikTok. With all the vagueness surrounding the new deal amid constant changes to an unrelenting geopolitical issue, it seems that only time may tell.
In the meantime, TikTok is here to stay — at least, for now.
Graphic Thumbnail by Meher Yeda