The United States of America is intensely pushing for the ban of the Chinese-based social media network, TikTok, over fears the company could be sharing data of its citizens with the Chinese government.
Where a ban is not possible, the US government would prefer a forced sale of the platform. China is vehemently opposed to the sale of the company because it could mean selling tech trade secrets to its long-time rival. TikTok is owned by Bytedance, a Chinese tech company.
On Thursday, Shou Zi Chew, CEO of TikTok, faced a marathon hearing session by a bipartisan committee in the US Congress. The goal was to decipher to what extent TikTok poses a potential threat to US consumers and decide whether a general ban was necessary or a potential sale.
After the five hours of grilling, US congressmen said they were unconvinced of Chew’s testimony and assurances and would strongly recommend a ban.
Senators Mark Warner and John Thune, co-sponsors of a bill that seeks to give President Joe Biden greater power to regulate and sanction China-affiliated companies, told pressmen later that there was nothing the committee heard from Chew that assuaged US national security concerns about TikTok.
“The House will be moving forward with legislation to protect Americans from the technological tentacles of the Chinese Communist Party,” Kevin McCarthy, Speaker of the House, said in a tweet on Sunday.
Many experts say the decision of the committee was predetermined even before TikTok stepped into the room. Gene Munster, managing partner of Deep-water Asset Management, said it is just a matter of time before TikTok is banned, which will spell trouble for US stocks.
The ban is likely to escalate tensions between China and the US. The North American country, on March 1, gave all government agency staff 30 days to delete TikTok from federal devices and systems over data security concerns. The White House directive comes after the US Congress officially banned the app on all federal government devices in December 2022.
It also brings a new dimension to the geopolitical situation in which a country gains the upper hand in technology. A ban on TikTok has dire implications for the use of technology in other countries.
For closest allies of the US, like Canada and the UK, banning TikTok is most likely to happen as soon as the world’s superpower pulls the plug. On March 24, Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, told Biden, during a press conference in Ottawa, that his teenage daughter and son, Ella-Grace and Xavier, were banned from accessing TikTok. Government workers in Canada have been prohibited since February 28 from using social media platforms on their official devices over privacy and security concerns.
The United Kingdom also banned the app from government mobile phones and devices in the first week of March. On March 23, the UK parliament decided that it will ban TikTok from all parliamentary devices and the wider parliamentary network due to the need for cybersecurity.
As compelling as the concern to protect US citizens may be, experts have also suggested that the US may be pursuing a vendetta against China where many US websites are not allowed. Facebook, YouTube, and Google are banned in China. WhatsApp has been blocked in China since 2017. However, users can bypass the ban using a VPN.
In 2021, LinkedIn also closed the Chinese local version, citing difficulties in adapting to local data protection legislation. It was replaced with a local application called InCareer.
Zoom had to release a local version in 2020 because the international version was blocked. Individuals can join meetings using the local version, but they cannot organise the meeting. Premium subscribers have to subscribe to be able to create meetings on the local platform.
The geopolitical war also affects other technological innovations such as semiconductors and fifth-generation (5G) networks. China’s Huawei, which has an enormous capability for 5G deployment and is a threat to many US companies with similar capabilities, has been the most targeted. The company’s ban in the US has forced it to shift its focus to deploying its 5G infrastructure to Africa.
Nigeria and other African countries are unlikely to place a ban on Chinese companies because of their relationship with the US. China has deployed as many resources towards the development of the continent as the US has done. Many countries in Africa are indebted to China to the point the Asian giant has had to take over some of their national assets due to the inability to repay the loans.
The relationship notwithstanding, website bans do happen on the continent, often to suppress people’s voices against a particular government policy or misrule.
From the middle of 2021 to January 2022, Nigerians were thrown into a Twitter blackout as the government took an unpopular decision to ban the social media network after it deleted a tweet from the President that violated its policy.
Gbenga Sesan, director at Paradigm Initiative, a digital rights group, said while African countries can ban TikTok, they haven’t done so because they do not see the video-sharing app as a threat.
“They still see TikTok as a platform where young people just go to have fun,” Sesan said. “There are issues with using security as an excuse to shut down platforms that some governments think are active spaces where they think is now the last standing civic space.”
Paradigm Initiative has been monitoring internet shutdowns in Africa since 2016 and discovered that every year, a minimum of five countries in Africa have shut down the internet.
While African countries look away from TikTok politics, the US Congress is set to debate a number of bills that include a bipartisan measure that would give the government the ability to ban the app.
The Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology Act would direct the US commerce department to review and mitigate risks posed by technology that has ties to foreign adversaries, including China, North Korea, Iran, Russia, Cuba, and Venezuela.