- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 7, 2020

The long twilight struggle for global supremacy between the U.S. and China may soon be fought out in 15-second increments.

The Trump administration for the first time has floated the idea of banning the hugely popular video-sharing platform TikTok over concerns that the Chinese-owned social media app could be doubling as a surveillance tool for its communist government.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this week that the idea of banning TikTok and other Chinese apps is under serious consideration. It was the latest sign that the Trump administration is growing more aggressive in its crackdown on Chinese technology companies.

TikTok, with an unending menu of dance routines, lip-syncing and meme-generating performances typically lasting at most 15 seconds, has proved wildly popular with a rising young generation of internet users. It has racked up a reported 165 million or more installations on American smartphones, and more than 2 billion downloads globally, in less than four years since its launch.

In an interview with Fox News on Monday night, Mr. Pompeo said the administration is “certainly looking at” outlawing the short-form video app as part of a larger campaign targeting China.

TikTok’s parent company is the China-based ByteDance, though company officials have insisted that their app is in no way beholden to the government in Beijing and does not share user information with government authorities.

But U.S. officials seem to suspect otherwise. Mr. Pompeo cast TikTok alongside Chinese technology giants Huawei and ZTE in warning that Americans’ data from the app could easily fall into the hands of Communist Party leaders.

“We are taking this very seriously, and we are certainly looking at it,” Mr. Pompeo told Fox News’ Laura Ingraham.

When asked specifically whether he recommends downloading the app, Mr. Pompeo said, “Only if you want your private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.”

TikTok officials flatly denied the secretary’s allegations. A statement Tuesday noted that the company has a recently appointed American CEO and hundreds of employees in the U.S.

“We have no higher priority than promoting a safe and secure app experience for our users. We have never provided user data to the Chinese government, nor would we do so if asked,” TikTok said.

TikTok has repeatedly tried to demonstrate its independence from Chinese policies. The company announced this week that it would pull its app out of Hong Kong after authorities in Beijing implemented a harsh national security law that critics say will squash free speech and political expression in the territory.

Facebook, Google and Twitter said they would temporarily stop processing Hong Kong authorities’ requests for data as they review the law, but TikTok was the only major platform to pull out entirely.

Parts of the U.S. government already have strict policies to limit the use of TikTok. In December, the Pentagon directed all military and civilian personnel to delete the app from their phones, and some branches of the military have imposed outright bans over fears that service members’ data, including their locations while on patrol or on maneuvers, could be delivered to America’s leading geopolitical rival.

Other governments around the world share those fears. The Indian Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology last week announced a ban on TikTok and dozens of other Chinese apps. It said the apps are “prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defense of India, security of state and public order.”

The Indian anger reflected in part popular outrage over a recent border brawl between Chinese and Indian forces that left at least 20 Indian soldiers dead. The Indian ban would not force TikTok users who have already installed the app to delete it from their devices.

Still, a U.S. ban, coupled with India’s prohibition, would be a major blow for TikTok. Since its inception, the app has been installed in India 611 million times, representing more than 30% of all installations worldwide, according to data from the mobile app analytics company Sensor Tower. The U.S. represents about 8.2% of the international total.

It is not clear how serious the U.S. is at banning TikTok. Mr. Pompeo hedged the threat Monday night.

“With respect to Chinese apps on people’s cellphones, I can assure you the United States will get this one right too,” he said. “I don’t want to get out in front of the president, but it’s something we’re looking at.”

Some on Wall Street appeared to take the U.S. threat as real. Shares of rival services Snapchat and Twitter surged in trading on the news Tuesday morning, with Snapchat at one point up 7% to a record $25.58 a share.

TikTok users made a direct appeal, on Twitter, to preserve their addictive habit.

“@realDonaldTrump pls don’t ban tiktok,” one Twitter user begged. “i literally have nothing else to do.”

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