ABOUTNicholas Thompson (@nxthompson is the editor-in-chief of WIRED.It’s certainly true that all Chinese companies must play footsie with the state, sharing data if and when the ruling Communist Party demands it. (TikTok has consistently denied that it has done so.) It’s true, too, that the Chinese government of Xi Jinping does not wish the United States well, and that its hacking and espionage operations have deep and malevolent roots. It’s true that smart people have raised valid concerns about TikTok’s security: any company that copies what you put on your clipboard is one that deserves very little trust. But that’s a reason to ban the app on the phones of American soldiers and diplomats, and it’s reason to warn others about the risks. It’s an argument, too, that US data privacy laws are woefully inadequate to protect people from data over-reaches by any app , regardless of the country of origin. But the public evidence that TikTok is a fundamental, and unique, threat to US security is simply not there .
TikTok, however, is a threat to Facebook: It’s a legitimate competitor that has been able to thrive without being captured or killed. During the antitrust hearings on Wednesday, one of Congress’s central critiques was that Facebook uses all the secret information it gathers to sniff out its nascent opposition . “Will [Zuckerberg] go into destroy mode if I say no?” Instagram founder Kevin Systrom asked one of his board members, Matt Cohler, while discussing a potential Facebook acquisition of his company. “Probably,” came the reply, according to a memo released during the hearings.
Friday, Bloomberg reported that Trump will “sign an order” directing TikTok ’s Chinese owner Bytedance to sell off the service.Bytedance doesn’t deny that it censors its Chinese services in line with government rules, but the company says it operates TikTok, which is not available in China, differently.
Instagram and Whatsapp were gobbled by Facebook and Snapchat was hobbled. But TikTok has survived Facebook’s destroy mode. The US company didn’t recognize its growth, and misunderstood its genius. By the time Facebook first tried desperately to copy and clone, it was too late. But now, with Trump’s aggressive stance, Facebook has been given a gift from above. Its new TikTok twin, Instagram’s Reels, launches soon. Without TikTok, the road to its success would be more open and clear.There has been a certain amount of conspiratorial talk about Trump and Zuckerberg since the two had dinner last November: theorizing perhaps that they reached some sort of tacit agreement that Zuckerberg would allow Trump to use the platform as he saw fit, and Trump would help Zuckerberg in other ways? I’ve always doubted that there was anything explicit. But powerful diplomacy doesn’t work that way. It happens through subtle signals, winks, and nods. And I doubt that Zuckerberg’s kindness toward the White House didn’t weigh somewhat in Trump’s mind.
But this of course just lays bare the hypocrisy in Trump’s move. It’s a move against free speech and, to the extent that Facebook has been gentle on the president, it’s because of Zuckerberg’s defense of that fundamental right. And if one is an avid believer in free speech, how can one even threaten the death penalty for a social media platforrm? TikTok is full of garbage and sometimes hate. But it’s free and open, even in ways that other platforms aren’t. Conservative critics who rail about Twitter’s lack of respect for the First Amendment are often just working the refs . But many are sincere. I am eager to see how they respond to the news of today. (I reached out to the White House for comment and will update if I am able to speak with them.)
It wasn’t the first time this month that lawmakers have questioned the security and content moderation practices of TikTok. Two weeks ago, Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) called for the Committee on Foreign Investment to investigate ByteDance’s 2017 acquisition of , a lip-syncing app popular in the US that was later merged with TikTok. On Twitter, Rubio said he was concerned TikTok is “censoring content in line with #China’s communist government directives.”.