China Calls TikTok Ban “Bullying” As Analysts Scramble to Find Meaning

China has likened the TikTok ban to “bullying”. This as analysts scramble to figure out what the Trump rejection means in the big picture.

On Wednesday this week, the story’s outcome seemed like such a sure thing. The Oracle TikTok “partnership” deal was effectively done. Trump would then sign off on the deal even though it really doesn’t mean much beyond a headquarters in the US and hosting privileges. Trump would count it as a win. Some even went so far as to call the head of Oracle buddies with Trump, lending credibility to this seemingly obvious outcome.

On Thursday, however, that image of things being such a sure thing began to crumble. Stories began emerging saying that Trump expressed skepticism over the deal. Those seemingly innocuous details about how an outright ownership transfer not happening was becoming a major sticking point.

By Friday, the deal rejection was pretty much a sure thing. Details also emerged on what the Trump ban actually looks like. As per the executive order, the deadline is tomorrow, so, bar any last minute drama, TikTok is going to be banned.

As a result of this, what China has to say about all of this is pretty much a moot point now. In response to all of this, China blasted the US for “bullying” in all of this. From the Guardian:

China has accused the United States of “bullying” and suggested it may take unspecified countermeasures after Washington banned downloads of popular video app TikTok and effectively blocked the use of the Chinese super-app WeChat.

“China urges the US to abandon bullying, cease (its) wrongful actions and earnestly maintain fair and transparent international rules and order,” a statement by the Chinese Ministry of Commerce said on Saturday.

“If the US insists on going its own way, China will take necessary measures to resolutely safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese companies.”

The United States made the moves against the two Chinese apps on Friday, citing national security grounds and escalating a fight with Beijing over digital technology.

Some might recall an incident earlier in the year involving a Trump rally. Specifically, the Tulsa rally. It was a rally famous for having scores of empty seats. Rally organizers bragged on the lead up to it that they had to reserve an overflow area for all the supporters that were going to show up. Unfortunately, few showed up, leaving a stadium filled with empty seats and a virtually empty overflow area. The failure to fuel his ego led to the famed “walk of shame” meme where a disheveled Trump leaving a helicopter after the incident.

On the surface, this sounds like a completely unrelated story from several months back, but it’s certainly possible that it is related. The reason for this is how TikTok users said that they reserved seats at the Tulsa rally for the specific reason of leaving those seats empty. If true, it hit Trump right where it hurt the most: his ego. It’s certainly possible that Trump harbored a grudge against TikTok itself as a result. That would certainly be a compelling theory as to why he is reacting this way: an act of revenge.

As we pointed out early, there is no real way to fully ban the social media platform. There will always be VPN’s, proxies, and anonymous networks to help gain access to the platform. In retrospect, there is one problem with that: not everyone knows how to use these tools. It would be much easier to simply move to another platform altogether. Although technically feasible, practical feasibility on such a scale would be, at best, minimal.

While there might be a mass exodus of users happening sooner or later, analysts a struggling to come up with what all of this means. After all, we are very easily in uncharted territory in all of this. Mike Masnick on Techdirt took the angle of how this is a direct affront to free speech. From TechDirt:

The details reinforce two key points:

  1. This is way unconstitutional and should be offensive to any 1st Amendment/free speech supporter.
  2. The excuses about national security are utter and total garbage, because this would actually make users of those apps significantly less secure.

So, great. We have some applications bans, premised on national security, that are unconstitutional piles of garbage that make people less secure, and the only possible path out is through a grifty deal, pushed deliberately to a large donor to the President, who has said multiple times he’s hoping for a kickback on the deal. We’re witnessing an astounding bit of corruption right here.

Here’s how the “ban” will work. First up, both apps get banned from all US app stores. The following is listed as “prohibited.”

Any provision of service to distribute or maintain the WeChat or TikTok mobile applications, constituent code, or application updates through an online mobile application store in the U.S.

That’s basically saying: “Apple and Google can no longer put those apps in their app stores.” There are 1st Amendment concerns here, in that the executive branch is telling software companies what code they can or cannot host. While the IEEPA law under which this order is being made is broad, this seems ripe for a huge 1st Amendment challenge. The President should not be able to simply ban code from app stores based on an unsubstantiated claim of “national security.”

Second, not only is this all based on unsubstantiated claims of national security, the very text proves how that’s bullshit. The fact that these app stores can no longer issue updates means that people who have the apps currently can continue using them, but if there’s a security update (say to patch a vulnerability) users can no longer patch those apps. If the goal of this ban is to “protect national security,” everything here is exactly the opposite of that. Users will still have the app, but are unable to protect themselves and can only keep using the app if they accept the obsolete and increasingly less secure version of it.

In other words: the whole “national security” claim is a total lie, because the way the ban is implemented gives Americans less security. That sure is one way to fight back against supposed Chinese surveillance through these apps. If it’s even true that China is spying on people via apps, they’re now in a “don’t throw me in the briar patch” situation — since the US government is forcing these apps to be less secure and to expose even more data to whoever has it.

The concerns expressed here are well founded. In fact, some of these questions might even be answered by the lawsuit filed by TikTok. Unfortunately, there is one catch in all of this: Trump appointees. As many political observers know, Trump has been filling court vacancies with Trump supporters. Already, the Supreme court is heavily tilted towards Republican ideology as it is. In the lower courts, we already know how much judges have been doing everything they can to support Trump. All of these reasonable and valid complaints could easily get shut down by Trump supporting judges.

Meanwhile, Joe Nocera of BNN focused on the ideological implications of all of this. From BNN:

Is this really what it’s come to?

Two companies, one American and one Chinese, make a deal. The deal is contingent on U.S. government approval. It is difficult to see the U.S. company’s justification for doing the deal — it sells boring-but-necessary software to businesses while the Chinese company is a quirky social media phenomenon beloved by teenagers.

Except for one thing: the top two leaders of the American company — which of course is Oracle Corp. — are staunch supporters of President Donald Trump. Oracle founder Larry Ellison threw a fund-raiser for Trump, and Chief Executive Officer Safra Catz has donated more than $130,000 on his reelection bid. Minus that relationship, it is a near certainty that Trump would reject its deal with the Chinese company, ByteDance Ltd., which created TikTok. Because of that relationship, it is a near certainty that he will approve it.

I can scarcely imagine a situation that is a greater violation of American capitalism. The idea that a country’s leader decides which deals get done and which don’t — and that it’s contingent on how friendly the company is with the leader — is how it works in, say, Putin’s Russia. One of great strengths of American-style capitalism is that companies succeed or fail on the merits — and that government’s role is mostly that of impartial referee. Trump has repeatedly trampled over the norms of American governance and weakened the rule of law. If he approves the Oracle-TikTok deal, which seems likely, he will be continuing his degradation of American business practices as well.

And yet — and this is the part I find astounding — nobody even blinks. “Oracle’s courting of Trump may help it land TikTok’s business and coveted user data,” read the headline in the Washington Post the other day, as if this were the most normal thing in the world. According to the Wall Street Journal, several ByteDance investors in Silicon Valley “went in search of a tech company with close ties to the administration”— knowing that a company that Trump favored had perhaps the only chance of succeeding. Again, this was reported as if it were unremarkable.

Even before Oracle entered the arena, Trump’s moves against TikTok were — or should have been — unacceptable. In July, Trump first suggested a TikTok ban as a way of punishing China for what he called its role in spreading the coronavirus. A few weeks later, when he issued an executive order calling for the popular app to be banned by Sept. 15, his rationale was national security: TikTok “threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information,” which, he claimed, might give China the ability to blackmail federal employees.

Even if this were true — and there are many doubters — a ban was hardly an appropriate response from an American president. As Wired put it, “Outlawing TikTok would … mean the U.S. would be participating in the same Chinese-style internet-sovereignty tactics it has long criticized.”

In short, this is as far away from the free market as you can get, and yet few people are objecting to it. Of course, there is the political reason of “it’s only OK when we do it” which might explain the silence on the Republican’s part. Still, if there is any semblance of a free market in the US before all of this, it’s been murdered by Trump at this point. While this seems like just an ideological concern when there are much bigger implications, the points are actually very well taken. Has America gotten to the point where business success is determined by currying favors with political leaders?

With the added implication that the Trump administration is set to reject the deal, this brings in a host of other issues. If a company has something happen with an employee or even just a customer, could that prove detrimental for the long term business? What kind of message does this send to other companies? Do not piss off the president or the days of your very existence will be numbered. This is about as awful of a precedence as you can get. Other companies might be motivated to crack down on criticisms of the president for fear of being the next company to receive the wrath of the thin skinned president.

Another angle in all of this is the international realm. How badly would you want to conduct business in a country that has devolved into “make the president look good or die”? If I were an international company worried that an employee or a customer (or a user for that matter) decided one day to speak their mind, chances are, I wouldn’t want to set up shop in the US. I’d be more interested in trying to set up shop elsewhere like Europe. It’ll be difficult to manage the multitude of languages, but at least I won’t have to worry about a thin skinned president seeking revenge when one of my users decides to speak their mind. This will likely split business into two categories: those that want to stick it out and see if they can work the system and those who want to get the heck out of Dodge.

There really is way too many angles to even count in all of this, but almost all, if not, all look bad. Economic standpoints, security standpoints, political standpoints, constitutional standpoints, business standpoints, etc. It’s hard to see an upside to any of these, but there are countless angles to look at this one. All one can really do is take things day by day at this stage.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

1 Trackback or Pingback

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: