The ByteDance-Beijing relationship is more familiar than one may think
On 14 August, President Trump issued an Executive Order (EO) giving ByteDance 90 days to divest the US operations of Tik Tok, its highly popular social media platform. The EO retrospectively invalidates the 2017 acquisition of Music.ly (the predecessor to Tik Tok), and requires ByteDance, along with its subsidiaries and Chinese investors, to cease ownership of assets and data used in connection with Tik Tok.
Microsoft remains keen on acquiring the social media platform, with Oracle and Walmart recently entering the race. The interest from these various companies is not surprising: Tik Tok currently boasts around 800 million active monthly users of whom spend, on average, 52 minutes per day on the app, which is more than Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. This is powered by a recommendation engine utilising machine learning to analyse a users’ interests and preferences as they interact with a vast pool of content. Such digital wizardry is what keeps the eyes of millions glued to their personalised feeds, showcasing everything from sloth videos to renditions of #renegade.
The underpinning rationale behind the bold executive action taken last month is that the platform presents a national security threat to the US. Tik Tok collects and processes a plethora of personal data from its millions of American users. This includes user interactions, language preferences, hardware information and even location data (a software engineer on Reddit, under the username bangorlol, has claimed to have reverse-engineered the app to reveal the vast amount of data being harvested).
ByteDance is responsible for developing the algorithm for Tik Tok and its other various services, thus processing the personal data collected through the app. The concern is that, under China’s infamous surveillance laws, the company can be required to provide the Chinese government access to such data or to develop its algorithm in such a way that supports the agenda of the Communist Party of China.
Tik Tok is China’s first social media app to be available to the rest of the world, and thus may present a unique opportunity to pursue its foreign policy. In particular, that the platform has become so viral in the run-up to a US presidential election could mean a chance to engage in covert electoral interference to rid of a President who has not been the friendliest to Beijing. A speculative prospect perhaps, but certainly a possible fear within the Trump administration.
The US is not alone in its hostility towards Tik Tok though: India also banned the platform earlier this year on similar national security grounds. The UK is also reportedly considering placing restrictions on the app short of banning it altogether. Yet, apart from the geopolitics, there are other notable points to be made about the Tik Tok saga.
The first is that other social media companies will no doubt be looking to take advantage of the potential void left in the market. Facebook has already introduced its alternative platform via Instagram, called Reels, and has reportedly been poaching talent from Tik Tok in anticipation of its demise. However, whether such rivals can replicate the success of the Chinese app remains to be seen. It has proven difficult in India so far.
The second notable point is that extensive, cryptic and seemingly unruly data processing is not just unique to Tik Tok. Other companies like Google and Facebook have also been guilty of engaging in similar practices and using people’s behavioural data for various lucrative ends, most notably targeted advertising. Although, in the opinion of bangorlol, the extent of Tik Tok’s data processing activities dwarfs those of other companies: “It’s like comparing a cup of water to the ocean.”
The third and final point is a broader one — the Tik Tok saga highlights the relationships that have often existed between the State and private enterprises, and not just in China. Ever since the Second World War, the US Federal Government has often kept close ties with the high technology ventures of private companies for various political ends. The growth of surveillance capitalism in particular has been partly due to the US’s newfound focus on the ‘war on terror’ in the early 2000s and the resulting binds between the intelligence agencies and the tech sector. As Margaret O’Mara puts in her book, The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America, the tale of Silicon Valley “is one of entrepreneurship and government.”
Even so, an important difference between these regimes in the US and those in China is the involvement of a democratic process in the former. In the West, limits are placed on the State to ensure that it does not abuse its power and unjustly infringe on individual rights. These limits may not be perfect, but at least there are avenues for legal redress and debates about the adequacy of those democratic controls. Can the same be said for China and its autocracy?