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TikTok is more than a viral video app: It's also the latest flashpoint in US-China relations

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The United States government is "looking at" banning Chinese social media apps such as TikTok.

The United States government is "looking at" banning Chinese social media apps such as TikTok.(Dreamstime/TNS)

David Nicklaus is a business columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Of all the ways China poses a threat to U.S. interests, you wouldn’t think a fun video-sharing app would be at the top of the list.

Nevertheless, TikTok is getting plenty of attention in Washington. On Wednesday, a Senate committee approved a proposal by Missouri Republican Josh Hawley to ban the app from government-owned devices. The Democratic-controlled House voted for a similar ban earlier in the week.

Keeping the app off government phones probably wouldn’t put much of a dent in TikTok’s base of 26.5 million American users, a majority of whom are under age 25. Presumably civil servants who want to share short lip-syncing videos could still do so from their personal phones.

Officials, though, have hinted at a much broader ban. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said TikTok could be barred outright on national security grounds.

TikTok hasn’t been accused of doing anything wrong, but it is owned by a Chinese company. The worry is that its tremendous cache of data about users — including their location and which videos they watch — could somehow be used by the Chinese government for spying or propaganda purposes.

TikTok has downplayed such concerns, noting that all of its data is on servers outside China and that it has 1,400 U.S. employees, including an American CEO.

To further distance itself from the Chinese government, TikTok recently pulled out of Hong Kong in response to a strict new security law.

Daniel Castro, vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, thinks Americans’ short, quirky videos are an unlikely target for espionage. “We haven’t seen any evidence that it’s a threat,” he says of TikTok.

“There are spyware apps out there, but we haven’t seen that in a harmless app where someone has played the long game of trying to create a tremendous user base and then trying to exploit it,” Castro added.

Don’t imagine, either, that a ban would only hurt the Chinese. As with other social media apps, a fast-growing influencer economy has sprung up around TikTok. “There would be direct impact on American users and producers of TikTok content,” Castro said. “Many entrepreneurs have invested heavily in developing content and developing a big following.”

St. Louis lawyer Robert Zafft, who has advised the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and other international groups, sees the pressure on TikTok as part of a broader confrontation.

Pushing back against a hypothetical threat — China’s ownership of a social media app — can be seen as a way of gaining leverage against other very real threats, such as China’s fortification of islands in the South China Sea and its theft of American companies’ intellectual property.

“This might be an asymmetric response to the larger challenge of Chinese aggressiveness,” said Zafft, an attorney at Greensfelder, Hemker & Gale.

India recently banned TikTok after a border confrontation with China in the Himalayas, and Australia is also considering a ban. Escalating the issue in the U.S. “could be an exercise in coalition-building against China to send a larger message,” Zafft suggested.

Perhaps, but I doubt that young people consider geopolitics when creating their dance videos. They just know they’ve found an alternative to older social sites such as Facebook and YouTube.

Taking away that alternative wouldn’t just ruin their fun; it would make the internet less global and less competitive. Removing TikTok from government devices may be a justifiable step, if somewhat paranoid, but a total ban seems like a vast overreaction.


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David Nicklaus is a business columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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