The Trump administration announced yesterday that it might follow India’s lead and ban TikTok for Americans. There is some sense in which this seems inconceivable. So far the protectionism frenzy on the part of the Trump administration has bypassed software products, at least until they went after Huawei, which at least offers a physical product.
TikTok is pure digits, a platform that seems silly (I could stand it for a couple of days only) but actually has inspired tremendous artistic creativity among the young generation.
Its use in the U.S. has exploded since the lockdowns. Can’t go to school. Can’t go to the park. Can’t hang at the mall. What else to do but dress up as a large fuzzy shark and filter a dance through a wacky mirror lens?
The threat alone is all the talk among young people. There is nothing but outrage.
Take away TikTok and there will be riots all over America, starting in the living rooms and spilling out into the streets. If this administration is trying to court the youth vote, this is not the best way to go about it. For that matter, parents have come to love this app because it keeps the kids busy with creative, harmless, and more-or-less clean fun.
The administration cites security concerns but TikTok denies that:
“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. We have never provided user data to the Chinese government, nor would we do so if asked.”
More likely, the motivation is purely political. In its dealings with China, the administration knows only one direction: escalate. Its protectionist attacks, its slow march toward trade decoupling, its near-daily rhetorical belligerence, its suggestions that the coronavirus is entirely China’s fault as if there had never been new viruses before, has fomented anti-American feeling across the whole of China, and has fed a kind of anti-Western paranoia in China, which has a history of that sort of thing.
This breakdown in diplomacy has lost the U.S. leverage even as Beijing moves to scrap what’s left of Hong Kong’s independence. Yes, the U.S. bears some large measure of blame for this. Even more bizarre, the administration thinks that the way to deal with this might be to attack Hong Kong’s special status.
But to go after a playful app as a national security threat? That’s an attack on the best thing about the new China, its innovative and enterprising economy. Why is the U.S., which is supposed to be a beacon of freedom for the world, banning and blasting a privately owned company that American kids adore?
It’s always struck me as odd how the new wave of American protectionism targets goods but not software and not services. With software, all apps live in the same store no matter what country they come from.
When you download an app, do you ask the question: am I buying American? Of course not. And that’s the best feature of the app economy. It has thus far been free of nationalist politics. Changing that will be an enormous challenge that can only end in a loss of digital creativity and more escalation of international conflict, and further push China toward an aggressive stance with its neighbors if only to spite the Trump administration.
It’s all about bringing the poison of politics to a realm of innovation that has thus far been mostly and mercifully free of it. Once we have to ask politicians’ permission to download a playful app, we are going further down the road that we’ve been on for the last several months: a new frontier of political control at the expense of individual choice.