Trump Regime Might Ban TikTok and Other Apps Owned by Chinese Tech Companies

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the State Department in Washington D.C. on July 1, 2020.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the State Department in Washington D.C. on July 1, 2020.
Photo: Mauel Balce Cenata (Getty Images)

The Trump regime is considering a U.S. ban on the popular music and dance app TikTok, as well as other apps owned by Chinese companies, according to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. TikTok is one of the most popular apps in the world, with roughly 800 million users globally, but the Trump regime believes user data on the platform could be funneled to the Chinese government, an allegation that has not been substantiated.

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“I don’t want to get out in front of the president, but it’s something we’re looking at,” Secretary Pompeo told Fox News’s Laura Ingraham on Monday night when asked about a potential ban of TikTok.

Pompeo explained the U.S. has been aggressive in restricting the way that Chinese tech companies can operate on American soil, citing recent bans on Huawei that have effectively shut the company out of the U.S. market.

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“We’ve worked on this very issue for a long time, whether it was the problems of having Huawei technology in your infrastructure—we’ve gone all over the world and we’re making real progress getting that out—we have declared ZTE a danger to national security,” Pompeo said. “With respect to Chinese apps on people’s cellphones I can assure you the United States will get this one right too.”

“Would you recommend that people download that app on their phones, tonight, tomorrow, anytime currently?” Ingraham asked rhetorically.

“Only if you want your private information in the hands of the Chinese Community Party,” Pompeo said.

TikTok, owned by Beijing-based tech company Bytedance, is not available on the Chinese mainland and the company denies that it’s beholden to the Chinese government. TikTok told Gizmodo on Tuesday morning that it would never provide user data to the Chinese Communist Party.

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“TikTok is led by an American CEO, with hundreds of employees and key leaders across safety, security, product, and public policy here in the U.S.,” a TikTok spokesperson told Gizmodo via email. “We have no higher priority than promoting a safe and secure app experience for our users. We have never provided user data to the Chinese government, nor would we do so if asked.”

India recently banned TikTok and there are reports that the Australian government is considering a similar ban of the app. India has experienced a high degree of geopolitical tension with China in recent weeks over a disputed territory in the Himalayas, and Australia is part of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance that also includes the U.S., UK, Canada, and New Zealand.

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Pompeo spent much of the interview with Ingraham railing against the Chinese government’s incursion into Hong Kong’s local affairs, following the passage of a “national security” law giving Beijing unprecedented control over the semi-autonomous region. But Pompeo failed to mention that while President Donald Trump often talks tough on China’s authoritarianism, he actually admires China’s abuse of human rights and has said glowing things about China since at least the 1990s.

Trump even gave his endorsement to Xi Jinping when the Chinese leader started to build concentration camps for the Uighurs, according to former National Security Advisor John Bolton.

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From Bolton’s book, The Room Where It Happened:

Beijing’s
 repression
 of
 the
 Uighurs
 also proceeded
 apace.
 Trump
 asked
 me
 at
 the
 2018
 White
 House
 Christmas dinner
 why
 we
 were 
considering
 sanctioning
 China 
because
 of
 its
 treatment of
 the
 Uighurs,
 a
 non–Han
 Chinese,
 largely
 Muslim
 people,
 who
 lived primarily 
in
 China’s 
northwest 
Xinjiang
 Province.
 Ross
 had
 warned 
me
 that morning
 Trump
 didn’t
 want
 sanctions
 because
 of
 the
 China
 trade negotiations.
 The
 issue
 of
 the
 Uighurs
 had
 been
 wending
 its
 way
 through the 
NSC 
process,
 but 
it
 was 
not 
yet 
ready 
for
 decision. 
It 
only
 got
 worse.
 At the
 opening
 dinner
 of
 the
 Osaka
 G20
 meeting,
 with
 only
 interpreters present,
 Xi
 explained
 to
 Trump
 why
 he
 was
 basically
 building concentration
 camps
 in
 Xinjiang.
 According
 to
 our
 interpreter,
 Trump
 said that
 Xi
 should
 go
 ahead
 with
 building
 the
 camps,
 which
 he
 thought
 was exactly
 the
 right
 thing
 to
 do.
 Pottinger
 told
 me
 Trump
 said
 something
 very similar
 during
 the
 2017
 trip
 to
 China,
 which
 meant
 we
 could
 cross repression
 of
 the
 Uighurs
 off
 our
 list
 of
possible 
reasons 
to 
sanction
 China, at least as long as trade negotiations continued.

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It’s not yet clear whether a ban on TikTok could be circumvented by a VPN, something that internet users in other authoritarian countries often use to access forbidden content. But Americans should probably get prepared for a much more restricted internet over the horizon, if Trump has any say in the matter.

The president has a lot of leeway to ban things when he can cite a risk to “national security,” the thing that Trump would most likely point to if he goes through with a TikTok ban. The only problem is that basically anything can be about “national security” if you’re a wannabe fascist.

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Raising tariffs on foreign cars? Trump cited national security. Limiting steel imports? Trump cited national security. TikTok might be next, but there’s no telling what could come after that, especially if Trump wins reelection in November. Execution of drug dealers or even just political opponents accused of “treason”? That sounds like something that could be a matter of national security.

Matt Novak is the editor of Gizmodo's Paleofuture blog

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DISCUSSION

Yeah I agree that Trump is a shit-stirring Nazi who triggers xenophobia to keep people under control, but TikTok is 100% about generating facial, voice and gait recognition along with location data to the Chinese government (and any private company that wants to buy into it) - the same as Facebook is about slurping up user data and selling it to the highest bidder. The difference between Facebook and TikTok is that TikTok is part owned by the Chinese government and the Chinese government doesn’t have to ask to get access to any data held in China or by a Chinese company - they make no secret of their intention to have a database of every person for security and social behaviour tracking. Trump should definitely be treating Facebook and Google the same as he’s treating TikTok, but let’s not pretend TikTok is purely altruistic.