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There's currently tons of disputes in the media over the extent to which TikTok is supposed to be "spying" on US users and (afaik) the planned ban, if executed, will be done on the grounds of "national security". But why bring in privacy at all and not focus on this being purely a tit-for-tat response? Facebook, Google and many other US corporations are banned from operating in China, so it seems reasonable for the US to retaliate and ban Chinese social media companies from operating on US soil. This would sidestep the dispute over how much of a threat TikTok is supposed to be and the Department of State could announce that TikTok will be unbanned as soon as Facebook becomes available in China again. Have any Congressmembers so far proposed dropping the "national security" angle and simple demand Facebook to be unblocked?

Related: Why don't Western countries penalize Chinese companies in the same way that China restricts Western companies working on its territory?

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    Voting not to close - It is a valid question for those who don't understand western politics.
    – sfxedit
    Apr 3, 2023 at 2:22
  • Is this specifically talking about the proposed RESTRICT Act? Apr 3, 2023 at 13:39
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    Why do you even think, at all, that this forms a part of the reason? Do you have a source that suggests this? I am voting to close this because it seems to be based on a faulty premise.
    – wonderbear
    Apr 3, 2023 at 14:56
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    Voted to reopen - as I previously pointed out, not everyone may be familiar with how politics in United States work and this is thus a valid question to ask. For those who want this question closed, please comment and explain your reason. That is the only way the questioner can edit and improve the question and us reviewers / mods better understand your reasoning.
    – sfxedit
    Apr 5, 2023 at 2:08

6 Answers 6

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Well, Google did operate in China at one point. As far as I recall, China bans/blocks FB and Google's external sites at the Great Firewall based on these companies not co-operating with Chinese law enforcement on censorship (and spying on their own, Chinese citizens) as their version of "national security" exception from trade treaties etc. Back during the Trump administration:

Ambassador Michael Froman in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, stated, controversially, China’s Great Firewall presents a trade barrier to American suppliers. The Cyberspace Administration of China has rebutted this claim by asserting that the firewall was in place for security purposes and is not a violation of World Trade Organization stipulations.

So, in this sense, the US response is rather similar. The only thing that's missing is some explicit tit-for-tat invocation, and even that is probably not totally missing, depending where (ibid) you read about it.

One slightly subtle point is (I think) that if the US does this ban openly as a tit-for-tat measure, that action is easier to challenge at the WTO, because the latter gives wide (but, more recently, not complete) latitude to countries to define national security exceptions. If the US does this openly tit-for-tat and China sues at the WTO, it's up to the US to prove that China's initial measures violated WTO rules. Whereas if the US does the same but on national security exception, it's then up to China to prove the US invocation thereof isn't valid. So, in this regard, it's a matter of placing the onus of evidence on the other side, given the rather nebulous WTO rules in this area. Yeah, China has been claiming that even bans of TikTok (and WeChat) on US government devices violated WTO rules, but insofar they brought no WTO case on that, as far as I can tell. (They've been claiming the same about the broader ban by India. AFAICT, they didn't bring a WTO case on that either.)

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  • "Whereas if the US does the same but on national security exception, it's then up to China to prove the US invocation thereof isn't valid." - does this translate to: "China is guilty until proven innocent"? Also, what about "negatives cannot be proven?" IMO, whoever makes a claim (e.g., "national security") must also bring the proof. Otherwise, we are not on the land of logic and law anymore. Or?
    – virolino
    Apr 3, 2023 at 9:13
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    @virolino No, it translates into "The US is innocent until proven guilty". The US is claiming a legitimate reason, and it's up to China to prove that the reason is not legitimate. As for the "land of logic and law", no such thing exists. The land of logic and the land of law and court proceedings have some overlap, but they are nowhere near congruent. Apr 3, 2023 at 10:25
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    @virolino Your logic is not flawed, but it is misdirected. Neither country is directly accusing the other of directly attacking national security. They are both just claiming that national security is involved in the reasoning for the bans. To be clear, the only thing that can or needs to be proven is that these bans are in violation of WTO rules. Alas, in these particular cases, that involves successfully challenging the reasoning itself. Apr 3, 2023 at 10:45
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    The WTO angle is interesting, but I doubt it would be the biggest legal problem in the OP's proposal. The bigger problem would be that pesky First Amendment, which does not contain an exception for retaliating in kind against another country's government.
    – reirab
    Apr 3, 2023 at 15:45
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    @virolino: It's not a matter of guilty-until-proven-innocent or innocent-until-proven-guilty. It's a matter of proven-guilty-of-something-of-concern-to-USA vs proven-guilty-of-something-of-concern-to-WTO. (One particular example of that something-of-concern is "harvesting location data from private devices of American troops")
    – Ben Voigt
    Apr 3, 2023 at 16:11
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Just as an hypothesis: the USA government actually believes (correctly or not) that TikTok could be a security risk.

In that context, framing the measures as retribution for Facebook's restrictions in China gives the PRC the opportunity to just lift those restrictions.

That would pressure the USA government into lifting the ban of TikTok, or force it to switch the justification to the security line. The USA government claiming on Monday that TikTok was banned for one reason and then claiming on Tuesday that the reason was a different one would hurt the USA government credibility, and would enrage TikTok fans and users, specially those inside the USA.

Another hypothesis: TikTok already has lots of users in the USA. Telling a user that his favorite social app is banned to help the cause of a social app that he does not use could be somewhat unpopular, the "security" reason makes for a good appeal to patriotism.

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    From what little I know about TikTok and the US, it is a security risk almost by definition. They collect lots of information about the users behavior. Because that is how this thing works - it is hard to doubt that it happens. Oh, and the Cineese Comunist Party has access to the data. We do not even need to start to think about "which data" to see there is something wrong. Apr 4, 2023 at 15:31
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    @VolkerSiegel but American apps do the same thing to the American government, so if we think this is unfair we should also ban Facebook, and Stack Exchange. Apr 4, 2023 at 17:06
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    @JamieB Less oversight than you think. Read about parallel construction - they will take the illegal evidence (like you tripped an NSA dragnet word filter so they knew you were selling drugs), use it to create an alternative legal chain of evidence (like the police officer just happened to drive by and notice drugs in your window), and then present the legal one to the court. Apr 4, 2023 at 17:53
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    @user253751 Not to mention that the US surveils non-citizens constantly, who have no consitutional protections at all. Apr 4, 2023 at 19:29
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    @user253751 The point is that China's government is, in terms of security, an adversary to the US government. And that the US does not have any power or influence on Chinese companies. Apr 5, 2023 at 0:27
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"Have any Congressmembers so far proposed dropping the "national security" angle and simple demand Facebook to be unblocked?"

That implies that the unblocking of Facebook is the goal, but the actions we've seen so far say otherwise.

One possible view of the attempted ban that I've been hearing around is that it's an attempt to get American market share back into the hands of American companies. Nothing about data protection, because if that were a concern, then Facebook and Google would be under fire as well.

Getting China to unban Facebook in mainland China might gain Facebook some market share in mainland China. But when TikTok is eating huge chunks of market share in their home territory of America maybe priority should be local before overseas. Which could be why they're attempting to solve things locally before trying to change foreign laws to allow for Facebook to enter that market.

Then there's the data privacy/protection debate that is actively being used as the reason for the ban. Which similarly does not care whether Facebook can operate in China.

Finally Google and Facebook have been lobbying for this ban. They are the ones prioritizing the American market share over the Chinese market share. They could just as easily spend that money trying to influence foreign policy to expand their own market, but are instead lobbying to reduce TikToks available market.

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    If it´s just your opinion, the answer is off topic.
    – convert
    Apr 3, 2023 at 13:28
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    @convert It's an opinion that is backed with factual claims, and is far better than the other Answers which all seem to take the Question's premise at face value. The assumption that the goal with blocking TikTok is to punish China for blocking Facebook is an odd one. Why would the US government suddenly be pro-Facebook, and put it above all the other sites that have been blocked in China?
    – trlkly
    Apr 3, 2023 at 19:05
  • Including the wording about opinions is unnecessary though. I'll edit it to be more objective Apr 4, 2023 at 7:32
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    In comparison, we can see that in the EU, where they also claim to care about privacy, companies like Facebook and Google are under fire as well which gives us more grounds to think privacy is the real reason for stuff that happens in the EU. Apr 4, 2023 at 17:56
  • TLDR: Add sources. TheEvilMetal compare your answer to Machivity's. You make some claims, but provide no sources for those claims. That makes your answer, your opinion. Machivty on the other hand, has added sources backing up their claims. Which means I can read to decide whether or not to agree with him.
    – CGCampbell
    Apr 5, 2023 at 12:18
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There's several issues at play that go well beyond a mere tit-for-tat play

Social media isn't exactly anyone's political darling at present

Part of the narrative that has been building is that these companies (US and otherwise) are harming users (i.e. children), and promoting misinformation

The chief executives of Facebook, Google and Twitter faced withering criticism from members of Congress on Thursday about their handling of misinformation and online extremism during their first appearance before lawmakers since the Jan. 6 Capitol riots and the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine.

And

The hearings coincide with legislation under active consideration in both the House and Senate to rein in the tech industry. Some bills target companies’ economic dominance and alleged anti-competitive practices. Others zero in on the platforms’ approach to content moderation or data privacy. The various proposals could introduce tough new requirements for tech platforms, or expose them to greater legal liability in ways that may reshape the industry.

Both Republicans and Democrats are not happy with Facebook. Openly doing Facebook a favor would not play well politically for anyone.

China has access to US TikTok data, likely meaning the government has access as well

BuzzFeedNews had this story

“Everything is seen in China,” said a member of TikTok’s Trust and Safety department in a September 2021 meeting. In another September meeting, a director referred to one Beijing-based engineer as a “Master Admin” who “has access to everything.” (While many employees introduced themselves by name and title in the recordings, BuzzFeed News is not naming anyone to protect their privacy.)

TikTok has said the story is false, and yet won't commit to cutting off any data flows to China

Pappas affirmed in Wednesday’s hearing that the company has said, on record, that its Chinese employees do have access to US user data. She also reiterated that TikTok has said it would “under no circumstances … give that data to China” and denied that TikTok is in any way influenced by China. However, she avoided saying whether ByteDance would keep US user data from the Chinese government or whether ByteDance may be influenced by China.

The TikTok CEO failed to convince Congress they are not sharing data

This feeds into a larger push to isolate China technologically

Chief among that would be the banning of IT equipment maker Huawei

The Biden administration has banned approvals of new telecommunications equipment from China's Huawei Technologies and ZTE because they pose "an unacceptable risk" to U.S. national security.

Which also notes this later in the same article

That came after a March 2021 designation of five Chinese companies on the so-called "covered list" as posing a threat to national security under a 2019 law aimed at protecting U.S. communications networks: Huawei, ZTE, Hytera Communications Corp Hikvision and Dahua.

Around that time, the US also clamped down on certain technological chips

The rules prohibit the sale, to Chinese customers, of advanced chips with both high performance (at least 300 trillion operations per second, or 300 teraops) and fast interconnect speed (generally, at least 600 gigabytes per second). Nvidia’s A100, for comparison, is capable of over 600 teraops and matches the 600 Gb/s interconnect speed. Nvidia’s more-impressive H100 can reach nearly 4,000 trillion operations and 900 Gb/s. Both chips, intended for data centers and AI trainers, cannot be sold to Chinese customers under the new rules.

The US has struggled to get Huawei out of international markets previously

More of America’s allies are resisting pressure from Washington to rule out the use of telecom equipment from China’s Huawei Technologies — a company the Trump administration says poses national-security risks.

If TikTok is also being used to spy, that makes it easier to say anything coming out of China is potentially spying. That plays well with US efforts to limit them from tech markets.

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It is a tit-for-tat response. The reason for the difference in implementation is simply because the US and the Chinese have different political systems.

In the single-party highly centralised political system, Chinese leadership can act with decisive swiftness without much regard for public opinion. Whereas, a democracy (like the United States) has a slower consultative and cooperative mechanism that is designed to care about public opinion (i.e. all the stakeholders).

So the United States cannot simply ban TikTok, citing national security alone, as US political ideology has created a public opinion that protectionist measures (and other similar trade barriers) are bad for capitalism.

Note though that the US isn't planning to ban TikTok just using the privacy angle. The privacy angle is being highlighted to the public in the context of how it impacts the national security of the United States. Another important thing to understand is that democracy requires that political decisions be implemented through established (often well designed) processes and conventions in place.

A doubt that may arise from my answer is - if it is a tit-for-tat response, why did the US wait so long to act? The answer is that nobody predicted that Chinese internet companies could compete with the US BigTech so effectively, and in a very different manner to how capitalism works in the west (i.e. chinese companies have state ownership stakes in them). And political capitalist ideology demands that a negative action like a ban / sanction hurt someone economically to make them reconsider it. Thus, it was necessary to allow TikTok to flourish, before banning it, to make the Chinese realise that globalization needs countries to cooperate with each other.

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    "US political ideology has created a public opinion that protectionist measures (and other similar trade barriers) are bad for capitalism." - the last president was elected in no small part due to their repeated and firm commitment to build a wall locking out immigrants who assumed employment in the USA, take a strongly non-interventionist stance w.r.t. the Middle-East, and loosely speaking return the USA to its historic status as "great". The nationalist undertones were clear, and very definitely espoused protectionism as a valid and viable, if not necessary means to these ends.
    – Nij
    Apr 3, 2023 at 6:01
  • "Thus, it was necessary to allow TikTok to flourish, before banning it, to make the Chinese realise that globalization needs countries to cooperate with each other." Can you elaborate on this more? What does "cooperation" mean in this sentence?
    – Mavrik
    Apr 3, 2023 at 12:04
  • @Nij Trump is a businessman. So his approach to politics and administration is to treat it like a corporate with himself as the CEO. This obviously doesn't gel well with the democratic process and that is why his administration always had a tense relation both domestically and internationally. This is also why he failed to understand how a superpower needs to act. But credit is due to him for recognizing early on that US expectation that China will become a western type capitalist was flawed. And today Biden is doing what he crudely advocated for - both with China and with semiconductors.
    – sfxedit
    Apr 3, 2023 at 13:27
  • @Mavrik Any product / service needs a market to sell it. Thanks to globalization every country is a potential market. But if a country places protectionist measures that restricts trade of some product / service this places other countries at a disadvantage as market access is being denied to them artificially. Though US tech companies were banned in China US allowed China access to their market. This was to show them the value of the US market. Once a business sees how lucrative a market is, they obviously want to grow there. A block hurts. Thus countries have to cooperate to flourish.
    – sfxedit
    Apr 3, 2023 at 13:47
  • "in a very different manner to how capitalism works in the west (i.e. chinese companies have state ownership stakes in them)" - is it really that different? For one, nothing stops the state having ownership stakes in companies in the west, and for two, the real western state is the trillion dollars of wealth management funds, which have stakes in all the companies Apr 4, 2023 at 17:07
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Instead of correlating prior actions with unrelated reactions, let's look at the big picture....

American social media platforms are banned in China (along with I lost count of however many strict countries have also done the same) because China is a dictatorship and as with every other dictatorship, these things were seen as a threat to their power as they would never comply with propaganda spreading and they would inevitably open the door for many to freely speak out or start a revolution, etc...if it doesn't unquestionably promote our government, then it is a traitor before anything happens. (Loosely used example: any non-native north Korean on a tour in north Korea MUST always show the greatest if respects towards all government entities as required, such as bowing to statues of past and current leaders,saluting to high ranking officials,kneeling as custom, etc...)

Now think the big picture of TikTok. It's origins is China. that doesn't seem like the issue as this was known some 5 years or so ago when it was released here and nobody seemed to care and wasn't even brought up in the neutral context of simply stating a fact even during all of this. the court of public (and investigative) opinion seems to still not even care.

Moving on... Have you sat down and watched the popular or recommended feed videos on there? If you haven't, then I'm sure you've used YouTube a few times just to see a TikTok ad pretty much every ad break.

There's something about it. It's not something China did...at all . In fact, their TikTok audience is more into videos of things like child geniuses who can play Bach perfectly at age 4 or can do calculus equations in their head on the spot by the time they're in first grade, and the list of incredible and extraordinary people just keeps building. Sure, they have some content similar to ours, but it's far less of it with far less views and it's only viewed when "you just want something stupid to laught at for a minute to clear your head or take a quick breather from a complicated task or thought and laugh at something stupid or goofy."

That's basically how they view the type of content THAT WE ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR CREATING So, it isn't China's fault. It is our own and here's some more detail to this big picture I'm painting for you.

The videos are as ridiculously short as the content is redundant. Keep that up for 6 years and the result is obvious: people's attention spans have shortened by an unfathomable amount and the redundancy becomes a craving. 10 seconds of silence to think for yourself is almost like becoming dope sick (opiate withdrawals). Must...fill ..void... IT HAS BECOME A TOP SOURCE OR REASON FOR THE DECLINING STATE OF OUR MENTAL HEALTH AS A COLLECTIVE. That is why it's considered a national security risk. That and the fact they've given all the banned elsewhere unbelievably psychopathic conspiracy theorists a place to make thing up that otherwise smart people will believe because they yell loud words repeatedly, and on the platform where redundancy reigns supreme, it increases the likelihood that people will buy into it even if the subject matter is so obviously made up that you couldn't even pay someone to think that nonsense up. To conclude, we are the reason for this "ban" IF it happens and is followed through with. Out attention span has all but disappeared. Out temper has gotten much shorter. It has completely reversed what we once viewed as entertainment. We used to crave new and exciting things, but now we are content with uninteresting,unimaginative, unfunny, and repetitive content that it is starting to take a jab at our collective IQ.

It's like an addiction as well. When you call it out on any or all of those things, the avid viewer will get angry with you and even defend their stance to the point of insulting you or making you feel bad because you just shunned something they like.

Lastly, it's a safe haven for stark racing mad yltra-rught-winf lunatics who think the government controls social media because their untrue and angry hate speech violated the terms of service everywhere else. Stop watching any and all "news" on TikTok.most of it is fake and doesn't even sound based in fact.

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    So basically you are saying that it is a real national security threat targeted at dumbing down western children? Apr 4, 2023 at 17:08
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    however this does not answer the question, which is why a certain excuse is used for banning it, and is not related to what the app actually does Apr 4, 2023 at 17:10

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