When asked this week whether the UK would ban TikTok on government phones, Rishi Sunak’s response signalled a change in stance: “We look at what our allies are doing.”
Previously ministers had seemed sanguine, even saying that whether or not the app stayed on someone’s phone should be a matter of “personal choice”.
Not any more. The UK’s allies are turning against TikTok and it was when Sunak said he was watching their actions closely that a government ban became inevitable. The US, Canada and the EU’s executive arm have already decided to strip the app from official devices. It is now a matter of geopolitical choice.
TikTok is owned by the Beijing-based ByteDance. The fear among its critics on both sides of the Atlantic is that the Chinese state can access data generated by its more than 1 billion users and manipulate its recommendation algorithm in order to push a China-friendly point of view to unsuspecting users.
There is no hard evidence this is the case and TikTok says it would refuse any data request from the Chinese government, although the UK government cited concerns about “the way in which this [user] data may be used” for the ban on Thursday. But tensions over Taiwan, concerns that China will supply weaponry to Russia, the shooting down of a spy balloon that hovered over the US and warnings of state espionage have created a toxic backdrop to those denials. And on Monday a refreshed integrated review of UK defence and foreign policy described China as an “epoch-defining” challenge.
TikTok’s reputation was severely damaged last year when ByteDance admitted employees had attempted to use the app to spy on reporters.
TikTok will be concerned that Sunak will match each upward ratchet in pressure from his counterparts. On Wednesday the Biden administration demanded the platform’s Chinese owner sell the app or face a complete ban. Will the UK ultimately threaten the same?
If geopolitics is the leading factor in these moves, as opposed to hard proof that TikTok poses a security threat, then it is likely every deterioration in relations between China and the west will push the app further along the road to a complete ban or forced divestment from its owners in the UK and elsewhere. Indeed, a forced sale in the US – if the Chinese government lets TikTok’s owners do so – could lead to TikTok being peeled off from ByteDance in its entirety.
The shooting down of a Chinese spy balloon off the east coast of the US last month was followed by reports that negotiations between TikTok and the Biden administration over a deal to resolve security concerns had stalled, while this week the White House gave its support to a Senate bill giving the president the power to ban TikTok.
TikTok’s attempts to assuage those concerns – for instance announcing plans to store US and European user data on third-party data servers – seem to have failed with the current American president in the same way they did with his immediate predecessor, who also tried to force a divestment of TikTok’s US business. The backstop used by TikTok’s critics is the existence of Chinese laws that could force ByteDance to cooperate with Beijing authorities, including the national intelligence law of 2017, which states that all organisations and citizens shall “support, assist and cooperate” with national intelligence efforts. For many, this is enough evidence.
Perhaps eliminating the concerns over Chinese interference by selling TikTok to non-Chinese investors is the only way to quell the critics. But there are plenty of other aspects of the Chinese tech industry – from Huawei mobile phones to other electronic devices – that are just as capable of eliciting similar fears. Without strong supporting evidence there is no way of knowing how proportionate the UK government is being – and the same could be true for moves against other Chinese tech interests.
( Information from politico.com was used in this report. Also if you have any problem of this article or if you need to remove this articles, please email here and we will delete this immediately. [email protected] )