Saturday, 24 Oct 2020

Opinion | Trump Wants to Cripple TikTok and WeChat. Why?

President Trump’s plan to severely restrict the popular WeChat and TikTok apps could be viewed as a tit-for-tat for China’s yearslong prohibition of American services like Facebook and Google. But I’d like to think we’re better than that.

The president has cited security concerns in his quest to force the sale of the U.S. operations of TikTok to an American firm, setting off a bidding war that reached its nadir when he called for a fee to be paid to the Treasury Department for consummating a deal.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, in a statement, said the decision was in the course of “promoting our national values, democratic rules-based norms, and aggressive enforcement of U.S. laws and regulations.”

But President Trump’s effort to force the issue seems oddly personal, particularly given the scant public evidence so far that the Chinese government has infiltrated the apps to spy on Americans. And it flies in the face of a deeply held American value: freedom of speech. Perhaps the president is still sore that TikTok users claimed that they helped spoil his June rally in Tulsa, Okla., for which he had boasted that almost one million people requested tickets.

While much of the public discussion has focused on TikTok, the enormously popular video-sharing app, the prohibitions on WeChat are more sweeping and devastating. They also strike a blow at American principles around global commerce.

As of Sunday, all financial transactions will be restricted on WeChat, a communications, e-commerce and news site, as well as internet hosting or the use of the app’s code in other services in the United States, among other restrictions. In the process, the American government is cutting off millions of Americans in the United States from communicating with and financially supporting friends and family in China. WeChat is also an essential lifeline for what limited news manages to trickle out of China.

The actions against TikTok are less sweeping, but still deeply troubling. The government plans to prohibit new downloads and updates of TikTok as of Sunday and impose an outright ban if an acceptable divestment deal by its parent, ByteDance, isn’t reached by Nov. 12.

It may be easy to dismiss TikTok, brimming with short-form dance, instructional and prank videos, as nothing more than an distraction for millennials and members of Gen Z. But it has also blossomed into a hotbed for free expression and political protest. (And, yes, like other mature social media sites, it is a budding breeding ground for extremism and misinformation.) It has also minted new millionaires.

Business software giant Oracle has emerged as the winner in the recent bidding for TikTok, setting up a plan, along with Walmart and other investors, to take a majority stake in the site and move quickly toward an initial public offering in as soon as a year. The companies have revised the broad outlines of their deal to satisfy the Trump administration.

It would seem to be in the nation’s interest and that of both President Trump and the Commerce Department to smooth the path toward an American firm taking control of TikTok, which has some 100 million monthly active users in the United States. But the president has repeatedly muddled the talks, and Friday’s announced ban on new U.S.-based users and updates, including security patches, would quickly devalue TikTok.

There’s irony in the United States taking exception to TikTok and WeChat’s data collection when our homegrown technology giants have built their empires on hoovering up more and more of our personal information. Of course, there is the possibility that Chinese authorities do have access to Americans’ data through WeChat and TikTok. But the Trump administration simply hasn’t demonstrated that, unless you count repeated assertions as evidence. And the companies have vigorously denied the allegations. Now that President Trump has escalated the stakes, it’s time for him to show the world the goods, or back down.

Every election cycle brings new evidence of how foreign actors infiltrate our own social networks to disseminate misinformation and attempt to manipulate the electorate. President Trump won’t be able to prevent that with an outright ban on WeChat and TikTok.

Providing TikTok with an opportunity to emerge as a U.S.-controlled, publicly traded company would not only effectively break whatever bonds it has with China, but would also give it a chance to continue its rise as a serious rival to Facebook. That should be viewed as a good thing.

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