The Curious Case of a President, a Nation State and an App

With the eyes of the world turning to the United States for the upcoming presidential election in November, we thought we’d take the time to delve into the story of how and why Donald Trump tried to ban the popular app TikTok in the US.

What’s the story?

You’ve more than likely heard of TikTok by now, the addictive app that’s got everyone dancing, even if you’ve resisted the temptation to download it. This Chinese social media platform provides a space for people to share short videos – often showcasing music, dance, comedy and other talents. 

One person who is not a fan of TikTok, however, is the current US President Donald Trump. He published an executive order to ban the app from the US on the 6th August 2020, citing concerns about national security.

His concerns, and those of his administration’s lawyers, are that TikTok is mostly owned by ByteDance, a Chinese company which supposedly has strong links to the Chinese government. The Chinese Communist Party can technically demand that a Chinese business allows it access to the data it holds on customers through its National Intelligence Law, which is what has prompted concerns about national security. 

So, will TikTok be banned?

Although the Trump administration made a move to remove TikTok from app stores in the US, a judge blocked the order on 27th September 2020. This was on the grounds that the app would suffer ‘irreparable harm’ if banned in the US, since it has more than 100 million users in the country.

Instead, TikTok is in talks to sell its US operations to a US company. Microsoft was hoping to purchase the app, but their bid was denied. Now, it looks as though a deal will be struck with Oracle and Walmart.

Under the current agreement, Oracle would hold a 12.5% stake in TikTok and act as a data host for the US operation. Walmart would hold a further 7.5% stake. ByteDance would transfer US operations to a new company called TikTok Global, based in Texas.

There is still a chance that the app could be banned. It was banned in India, for example, over similar cybersecurity concerns and they did this by blocking TikTok from using Indian IP addresses. However, the future of TikTok in the US is uncertain at the moment!

Meanwhile, this whole rollercoaster of a story has raised a couple of key questions…

1. Why are governments scared of an app?

The concerns about cybersecurity are not without cause – one user, for example, has supposedly ‘reverse engineered’ TikTok and claims it is nothing more than a ‘data collection service that is thinly veiled as a social network’.

It does seem that TikTok can collect a vast amount of personal information from users, including location data, phone model and operating system, and even keystroke rhythms. Importantly, this data is not necessary for the intended function of the app. This has sparked alarm for some users, along with advice to stop using the platform.

However, others have argued that this is true of many social media platforms – especially companies that have a monopoly on social media, like Facebook, who also owns both WhatsApp and Instagram. In fact, the BBC suggests that much of TikTok’s data collection is comparable to other networks such as Facebook. It’s certainly not breaking news that tech companies collect and store our data and that it can be used against us (typically for advertising).

Related article: Why Do We Trust Google and Not Facebook?

It is also important to note that this Reddit user, with the username u/bangorlol, hasn’t provided any proof of his efforts other than the claim that the reverse-engineering process was carried out.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has alleged that TikTok users are at risk of their data ending up “in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party”. However, a TikTok spokesperson has stated: “We have never provided user data to the Chinese government, nor would we do so if asked”. 

Furthermore, the US government actually has similar power over user data from US-owned companies across the world, due to its CLOUD Act. The Chinese government has expressed its own security concerns over the widespread use of Cisco hardware in Chinese businesses.

It is interesting that the Trump administration is so concerned about TikTok being used for espionage when almost a third of its audience are teenagers (13-17) and close to half aged between 16 and 24. We could be wrong here, but they are most likely not key members of the government or the security service who are going to give away state secrets.

It does raise the question of whether the Trump administration is really concerned about cybersecurity or whether this dramatic saga has more to do with the ongoing power struggle between the US and China. 

ByteDance, for example, is now the world’s most valuable startup. This probably won’t sit very well with the United States government, which is perceived to be the most powerful in the world, especially in a world where technology companies increasingly have as much power as national governments.

2. Why are companies desperate to save an app which may not have long-term value?

Although social media companies can clearly make a great deal of money, the monopoly by Facebook has proven extremely hard to challenge over the past ten years or so.

Snapchat is a prime example of an app that was extremely popular but soon went into decline resulting in serious losses for investors. After its IPO in 2017, Snap Inc. lost more than $20 billion in value in the following two years. It is still yet to turn a profit. 

Part of the reason for the decline in Snapchat use and value was due to a controversial app redesign in 2018 and the consequent negative press from celebrities like Kylie Jenner. However, another significant factor in its decline was that Instagram essentially copied Snapchat in 2016 to create a “Stories” feature, with the fairly transparent aim of drawing users away from Snapchat. After Instagram launched its new feature, Snapchat’s growth slowed by 82%.

Now that Instagram (owned by Facebook) has launched Reels, is it only a matter of time before they will once again draw users away from a challenger app like TikTok and back onto its own? If so, why are US companies and even judges fighting so hard to keep it alive when, unless an app is absorbed by Facebook, it seems to have little chance of success?


And that concludes our curious case! Thank you very much for reading and we will try our best to update this article if more developments occur. For more insights like this, keep an eye on our blog.