TikTok: Between China and USA, is it a data dispute?

With Facebook still dominating the social media scene, other applications and platforms continue to popup: “TikTok” is one of them. If you still haven’t used this mobile application, you definitely heard about it.

Launched in 2016 by a startup called “ByteDance” in China, TikTok allows users to watch, create and share 15 seconds videos shot on cellphones. After it bought “Musical.ly”, a similar lip sync Chinese application, for an estimated of USD 1 billion, TikTok increased its market valuation with billions of users subscribing to it.

Behind almost every rapid success and expansion in the world, there are controversies. Recently, TikTok started to face a lot of problems.

  1. The first one was exactly on 3:23 PM on February 21st, 2019 in Brazil, when a young guy committed suicide by posting his suicidal video on TikTok. Officials at TikTok knew about this video at 5:00 PM and did not raise the incident to the authorities immediately. Instead, the management put in place internal policies to minimize the viral expansion of the video. With that move, TikTok seemed to care more about its image than about the dead guy and his family.
  2. The second controversy was when certain countries such as Bangladesh and India banned their citizens from downloading and using the application, and accused TikTok of pornography, inappropriate content and blasphemy.
  3. In February 2019, Tiktok had to settle the amount of USD 5.7 million in the United Stated of America for being accused of collecting personal information from children which was a breach of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This was one of the biggest and largest civil penalties obtained by the Federal Trade Commission in a children’s privacy case.

Recently, TikTok joined Huawei. In the world of technology, this means that a giant Chinese tech company acquired access to a large data.  As a result, the President of the United States of America (US), Donald Trump, threatened TikTok that the use of the application will be banned in the US territories if the application is not sold to the US. One of the alleged reasons is that Tiktok collects data from a huge number of American users.

However, is the dispute between China and the US over Tiktok effectively a data dispute, or is it a pure economic and political war?

  • Data collected by TikTok and the US concerns

According to TikTok’s privacy policy, the application collects the username, the user’s date of birth, email address and/or telephone number, information the user discloses in his/her user profile and most importantly, the user’s photograph or profile video.

In the data world, TikTok is considered a data processor. It processes the content generated by users on the application, including references set by the user (such as the language), photographs and videos uploaded, and comments made to other users.

This is why officials in Washington are concerned about the fact that the Chinese government has access to American data. Instead, D. Trump gave the chance for Microsoft to buy TikTok, on the grounds that TikTok’s access to US data constitutes a threat to the National Security of the US. As a matter of fact, the Chinese government has the ability to access the US companies’ systems under local laws.

According to a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Wang Wenbin, “China firmly opposes any US action against the Chinese software companies over national security concerns. The US generalizes the concept of national security and, without any evidence, presumptions of guilt and threats against relevant companies. This violates the principles of market economy and exposes the hypocrisy and typical double standards of the US in maintaining fairness and freedom. It also violates the World Trade Organization’s principles of openness, transparency and non-discrimination.”

  • TikTok’s position and available remedies

The same data dispute seems to happen with WeChat, a mobile application collecting data from users and allowing the Chinese government to access the personal and proprietary information of Americans. Additionally, WeChat keeps track of the personal and proprietary information of Chinese nationals visiting the US which prevents the US from attracting Chinese tourists and citizens.

Assuming that the dispute between the US and China over TikTok is a data dispute, since the US considers that it cannot control the data collected by Tiktok from American users, TikTok has limited options to settle the dipute.

TikTok can either sell the application to the US, or have a majority of American stakeholders buy shares from the company’s share capital.

ByteDance considered the ban as a shock and as “setting a dangerous precedent for the concept of free expression and open markets”. The company added that it would pursue all possible and available remedies giving the rise that it may take legal action.

The Aftermath

Data is considered as the oil of the era of technology and each country is concerned about the data collected by other countries over its citizens.

The dispute over TikTok marks the start of a new era in the tech world and we will have to wait for the outcome to determine if, effectively, data can be used as a threat and as an economical weapon against a country.