Is Time Running Out For TikTok?

A young man holding a smartphone casts a shadow as he walks past an advertisement for social media company TikTok on September 21, 2020
A young man holding a smartphone casts a shadow as he walks past an advertisement for social media company TikTok on September 21, 2020

Is time finally running out on this Chinese-owned social media’s effort to grab the data, and even control the minds, of its 100 million monthly U.S. users?

After months of bickering, it appears a deal allowing TikTok to be sold to an American buyer has won the Trump administration’s tentative approval, involving software giant Oracle getting a minority stake in the Chinese company. while “hosting all U.S. user data and securing associated computer systems to ensure U.S. national security requirements are fully satisfied,” according to a statement issued by TikTok.

Although Oracle is one of the few Silicon Valley companies that “gets it” regarding the China threat, some critics say the deal is insufficient to rein in the potential malicious uses of TikTok. Now there are concerns about the TikTok algorithm which, it is alleged, injects pro-Beijing propaganda into its services. Others say the algorithm has been linked to incitement of violence against the police—while still others say it censors messaging supporting BLM. The only alternative, critics argue, is an outright TikTok ban, like the one imposed by India in June.

It is important we learn the right lessons from the TikTok saga, however it plays out.

The first is that any app originating from China has malicious potential requiring close scrutiny—a scrutiny Trump officials have used to ban WeChat, as well. The other is the point we raised in our previous column on TikTok: that data, any data, is fast becoming a strategic commodity, thanks to the power of AI and Big Data. How we allow any company or government agency to export or pass along digital data is going to require the tough restrictions and precautions we might associate with handling weapons-grade uranium—because in the wrong hands the results could be almost as explosive.

But the fact remains, TikTok and WeChat are small fry compared to the much bigger dangers China poses to our digital and post-digital future.

First and foremost there’s the continuing threat posed by China’s telecom giant Huawei. That company’s effort to dominate 5G wireless technology. and how we all use and access data including the Internet in the 21st century, suffered a serious check when Britain decided to join us in a ban on 5G Huawei equipment. But Huawei still has ninety-plus countries signed up to use or test that equipment. The need to go beyond a simple Huawei ban, and to build a global constituency for a U.S.-supported 5G grid, remains.

Second is China’s effort in technologies like quantum and semiconductors. In quantum’s case, China’s spending on this 21st century technology far outstrips ours as they strive for the ultimate cyber weapon: the quantum computer big enough to overturn virtually every public encryption system in the world, from bank accounts and financial markets to the power grid. China still lags far behind the U.S. and Taiwan and South Korea in manufacturing semiconductors, the essential component of every digital technology. Still, Beijing’s “Made in China 2025” industrial plan aims to produce 40% of the semiconductors it uses by 2020 and 70% by 2025—even as the U.S. industry has been sliding from more than a third in 1990 to 12% of world output (much of that output goes, ironically enough, to China).

But the threat also concerns where we stand on training the scientists and engineers who will build and sustain that high-tech future, compared to China. As Asia Times’s David P. Goldman pointed out in a column this past April:

“As of 2015, China graduated six times as many engineers as the United States… Four out of five US doctoral candidates in electrical engineering and computer science are foreign students, and the largest cohort by far is Chinese.”

It's no coincidence that Apple chooses to build its iPhones in China-or that a slick China-designed app like TikTok could almost literally take over the world in less than three years. Beijing can tap into a vast high-tech talent pool for its strategic purposes, whose members aren’t weighed down by student loan debt and who’ve been trained by the best and brightest here in the USA.

Defeating TikTok and WeChat are skirmishes in a much bigger war, the war for the high-tech future. Our teens will survive without TikTok; our freedoms won’t if we lose that larger conflict.

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