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Trump goes after TikTok: Everything you need to know – CNET

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TikTok, popular among teens, lets you add music and effects to short videos. 

Angela Lang/CNET

This story is part of Generation China, CNET’s series exploring the nation’s technological ambition.

TikTok, an app known for quirky, short videos, is facing political heat because of its ties to China. 

President Donald Trump has ramped up his campaign against the short-form video app and is reportedly ready to order its Chinese parent company to divest its US operations. The order could come as soon as Friday afternoon, according to Bloomberg. Microsoft is reportedly interested in buying the app, according to The New York Times. (Microsoft declined to comment, and the White House didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.)

Owned by ByteDance, a Beijing-based tech company, TikTok has drawn the attention of the Trump administration, as well as other parts of the government, because of concerns it scoops up information on Americans that could be turned over to the Chinese government. The US Army and Navy have banned service members from downloading the app to government-issued phones. Earlier this month, the US House of Representatives voted to bar the use of TikTok on all government-issued phones. The Senate is expected to pass the measure. The Trump administration is also considering a ban of the app.

The US isn’t alone in its concerns. India has already banned TikTok, and Australia is also considering blocking the app.

The rising concerns come as TikTok sees its popularity explode. The app has gotten a new boost from the coronavirus pandemic, drawing in people looking to escape the boredom of lockdown. It’s been downloaded more than 2 billion times, according to research firm Sensor Tower, with 623 million coming during the first half of this year. India had been its largest market, followed by Brazil and the US. (TikTok isn’t available in China, where ByteDance distributes a domestic version called Douyin.)

In a move that could smooth things over with some lawmakers, TikTok on July 22 said it plans to hire 10,000 people in the US over the next three years. The company said it would add roles in engineering, sales, content moderation and customer service in California, New York, Texas, Florida and Tennessee. 

TikTok also reportedly rolled back talks to house its international headquarters in the UK, raising concerns that the decision could spark a trade war between the UK and China, according to The Guardian

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Now playing: Watch this: Why the US might try to ban TikTok

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Here’s what you need to know about the political backlash against TikTok:

Why is the Trump administration worried about TikTok?

Politicians are worried the Chinese government could use the video app to spy on US citizens. In an interview with Fox News aired on July 6, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that users who downloaded the app are putting “private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.” Trump cited a different reason: punishing China for its response to the coronavirus. Asked about Pompeo’s remarks in an interview with Gray Television, Trump confirmed the US is considering a TikTok ban. “It’s a big business,” Trump said. “Look, what happened with China with this virus, what they’ve done to this country and to the entire world, is disgraceful.”

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Generation China is a CNET series that looks at the areas of technology where the country is looking to take a leadership position. 

Brett Pearce/CNET

Trump’s and Pompeo’s remarks came after TikTok users and K-pop fans said they helped spoil attendance at a June presidential rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, by reserving thousands of tickets online with no intention of attending. Trump supporters have a visible presence on TikTok, so banning the app could also work against the president during an election year.

On July 12, White House trade adviser Peter Navarro told Fox Business that TikTok and messaging app WeChat “are the biggest forms of censorship on the Chinese mainland” and to expect “strong action on that.” He didn’t specify if a ban was coming.

TikTok’s access to US users’ data may well be worth investigating. There will always be concerns when apps from foreign companies collect large amounts of user data, said tech policy expert Betsy Cooper, director of the Aspen Policy Hub.

But, she added, “it’s unclear how much effort the administration will put into actually investigating the seriousness of the specific security concerns with the app versus using this as a threat for broader geopolitical leverage.”

How has TikTok responded?

Concerns about privacy and national security aren’t new to TikTok, and it’s tried to push back against political scrutiny. In 2019, TikTok said in a blog post that all US user data is stored in the US with a backup in Singapore. TikTok also said its data centers are outside China and none of its data is subject to Chinese law. 

“TikTok is led by an American CEO, with hundreds of employees and key leaders across safety, security, product, and public policy here in the US,” a TikTok spokesperson said in a statement addressing Pompeo’s comments. “We have never provided user data to the Chinese government, nor would we do so if asked.”

Can the US make ByteDance sell its US operations?

In general, the federal government can demand the sale of a company through the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States. This panel, which is part of the US Department of Commerce, is already investigating TikTok for national security concerns. The investigation, first reported in November 2019, could end up requiring changes to TikTok’s substantial operations inside the US, including a sale of its US operations.

The committee has jurisdiction because it reviews foreign ownership and control of companies in the US. ByteDance got its foothold in the US when it purchased Musical.ly, a US company that ByteDance acquired in 2017 for $800 million that was rebranded as TikTok. The acquisition helped TikTok gain traction with US teens.

There’s recent precedent for Chinese companies selling off sections of their businesses. In March, Chinese company Kunlun agreed to sell its controlling stake in gay dating app Grindr after the committee raised national security concerns.

Are there other ways the US government can take away TikTok? 

The US government could also try to find a legally sound reason to request that Apple and Google pull TikTok from their app stores, according to analysts. And the companies could put up a fight. 

“The tech community will be very hesitant to go along with this app ban,” said Wayne Lam, an independent technology analyst. “It sets a precedent for the government to ban other apps or even for other global apps to be inaccessible to the US market.”

Even if the app were banned, users can install apps on Android devices without downloading them from the Google Play Store, said Carolina Milanesi, a tech analyst at Creative Strategies. 

“I don’t know at that point how you police that,” Milanesi said.

The US Commerce Department could also put TikTok on its “entity” list, restricting the company’s access to US technology, she said. Chinese tech company Huawei is already on that list. Adding TikTok to the list would mean the app wouldn’t be allowed on Google’s or Apple’s store, she said. 

Lam said that the US government could block traffic to TikTok, but that is “unlikely to succeed given our legal systems.”

The New York Times, citing people familiar with the deliberations, reported that the Trump administration is looking to make a move against TikTok under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. That law allows the president to regulate international commerce after declaring a national emergency in response to any unusual or extraordinary threat to the US.

Can the government outlaw the use of a specific app?

The administration has limited authority to make illegal any specific piece of software, like an app. But it could potentially lobby Congress to enact legislation that targets TikTok, said Kurt Opsahl, general counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group.

Currently, Opsahl said, “there is no law that would authorize the federal government to ban ordinary American from using an app.”

Other countries do ban specific apps, and some have the ability to block them from working on the internet at the network level. This would be extremely difficult to accomplish in the US, said Arturo Filasto, a co-founder of the Open Observatory of Network Interference, who analyzes internet censorship in countries around the world. “There is no central place where you can go to and implement a unified filtering strategy, like there is in places like China and Iran,” Filasto said.

Instead, the government would have to order all ISPs in the country to block the app. Even if they all complied with the order, there’s no guarantee that TikTok wouldn’t find a way to get around those blocking efforts, Filasto said.

Sounds like a ban would prompt challenges by TikTok and the app stores. What would they likely do?

Any scenario would create opportunities for legal challenges. A law or executive order that targets TikTok could spur a challenge under the First Amendment, Opsahl said. The challenges would be based on previous court rulings that show “code is speech,” Opsahl said. Such rulings include Bernstein v. DOJ, in which the court found a computer scientist had the First Amendment right to publish an encryption algorithm.

Additionally, Apple and Google could push back on any orders to remove TikTok from their app stores, challenging a potential executive order or any fines charged by the Commerce Department after placing TikTok on the entity list.

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