Philosophy Corner: Dissecting the War on TikTok

The fate of a lighthearted video-sharing app marketed towards teens could pose disastrous consequences for America’s future.

The fate of a lighthearted video-sharing app marketed towards teens could pose disastrous consequences for America’s future. Even after a December 7, 2020 ruling preventing a TikTok ban, the Trump administration persisted in its effort to stop TikTok downloads, citing as its motive a national security risk due to Chinese ownership. The new Biden Administration has recently vowed to hold China “accountable” with respect to TikTok. TikTok claims it stores U.S. data outside of China, but Trump fears Chinese-owned ByteDance could be forced to hand over U.S. data. Chinese President Xi Jinping has increased state power with data harvesting and facial recognition technology, and his recent forcible scuttling of Jack Ma’s Ant Group IPO shows his willingness to exert his control over Chinese companies. 135 million Americans have downloaded TikTok, leading Senator Josh Hawley to call it a “Trojan horse on people’s phones.” If Trump and Hawley’s concerns are valid, then TikTok could pose a genuine threat to American security.

Yet Trump’s desire to ban TikTok likely did not stem entirely from security concerns. TikTok symbolizes the threat of the Chinese government, not only to free society but to American Internet dominance. The Internet is currently, for better or worse, dominated by American companies. TikTok is the first Chinese company to enter the American markets and therefore the global consciousness to the extent of Alphabet, Facebook, or Amazon. The app has surpassed two billion downloads, becoming a global craze. Part of the vehement opposition towards TikTok stems from the Chinese government’s many human rights abuses, but part may come from fear of China’s economic rise. If China becomes more of a technological powerhouse, it could gain diplomatic clout to challenge ours.

As Biden prepares to address the TikTok situation, he must recognize that the Trump administration changed China from a morally troublesome partner to an outright enemy of American ideals. A 2019 Pew Research center found that 60 percent of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of China, up from 47 percent in 2018. A decade ago, before escalating tensions, TikTok’s story might have been viewed completely differently. Zhang Yiming, TikTok’s founder, exemplifies America’s idea of an entrepreneur. Zhang was born to a nurse and a librarian in Longyan, a little-known town in China’s Fujian province. He grew up during China’s capitalist revolution, and Fujian was one of the first provinces to open to the world. He went on to develop apps and search engines, and developed TikTok in 2017 as an accessible way to share videos. After its billion-dollar acquisition of Musical.ly, TikTok gained a sizable American user base and went on to become one of the world’s most popular apps. Just a few years ago, Jack Ma, another Chinese tech mogul, was lauded during Alibaba’s 2014 listing on the New York Stock Exchange. In contrast, now, as tensions escalate between China and America, Zhang earns flattering nicknames like “China’s mouthpiece.”

At the same time, Xi Jinping’s authoritarianism shattered the boundaries that flimsily separated Chinese businesses from their governments’ human rights abuses. Though Zhang insists he would never comply with a request to turn over information, it’s only natural to wonder what stops a government that tortures Uyghurs and dissidents from forcing Zhang to comply. Xi’s vision of a high tech surveillance state alienates many in democratic countries, causing panic in American companies with Chinese ties and in Chinese companies trying to expand their holds on American markets. His expanding authoritarianism hurts China’s own entrepreneurs, and if China is to continue its historic rise, it must gain a foothold in the digital market. If Xi’s authoritarianism thwarts TikTok’s rise, it could also thwart China’s hopes of expanding its technology sector and gaining economic power.

In an age of machine learning and Big Data, the way we deal with TikTok sets an important precedent. To what extent can we preserve American ideals of personal liberties and freedom without compromising national security? The blanket banning of TikTok would mirror China’s bans on American social media. Are we prepared to combat authoritarianism by using authoritarian methods? Should we respond as China would, or should we forge a different path? Only individual users are risking their own data in using TikTok. The American government, in blocking TikTok, decides that the state determines how much of the Internet we can use, even when it doesn’t infringe on anybody else’s rights. Bizarrely enough, a dancing and comedy app targeted towards teens will set an important precedent for the free world in the digital age.

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