- TikTok is suing the US government after President Trump signed an executive order banning US firms and citizens from doing business with its parent company ByteDance, arguing a lack of due process.
- TikTok also argued it shouldn’t be treated in the same category as telecoms companies, alluding to the Trump admin’s blacklisting of Chinese telco giant Huawei last year.
- The Trump administration has argued both Huawei and TikTok pose national security threats because of their Chinese roots.
- TikTok says it shouldn’t be treated like a telecoms provider in terms of any theoretical threat it could pose, because it does not provide the hardware backbone to “facilitate the digital economy,” and it does not provide “critical infrastructure and vital emergency services.”
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TikTok on Monday filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration over President Trump’s attempts to ban it in the US. The company’s main argument is that the US government ignored its right to “due process” in implementing the executive order — but it also picks up on a finer detail.
In the executive order signed August 6, Trump wrote that the action against TikTok owner ByteDance — in which he banned US companies from doing business with the Chinese firm — was a follow-on from a May 2019 executive order. That first executive order paved the way for Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei to be placed on a trade blacklist.
In its lawsuit, TikTok argued that it couldn’t possibly pose a threat in the same way a telco theoretically could. It did not name Huawei directly, but compared itself to telcos targeted by the May 2019 order. The argument echoes a CIA assessment reported in the New York Times on August 7, which found that TikTok is far less of a national security threat than Huawei.
TikTok said it “is not a telecommunications provider and it does not provide the types of technology and services contemplated by the 2019 executive order.”
“Specifically, TikTok Inc. does not provide the hardware backbone to ‘facilitate the digital economy,’ and TikTok Inc. has no role in providing ‘critical infrastructure and vital emergency services,'” the lawsuit reads.
The US argues that both Huawei and TikTok pose a national security threat because of their Chinese roots, and has accused both of providing US citizens’ data to the Chinese government. Both companies have repeatedly denied sharing user data with China, and TikTok has said it stores all of its data on US servers. Both companies have also argued they have been targeted for geopolitical reasons as part of the US’ wrangling with China, rather than because they pose a real privacy or security threat.
Although the administration’s messaging about TikTok has been largely to do with security, before signing the executive order Trump suggested he might ban TikTok as a way to punish China for the coronavirus. Trump signed a second order stipulating TikTok must divest its US business. Microsoft and Oracle have confirmed they are both bidding to acquire its US operations.
The CIA might agree with TikTok
Senator Mark Warner told the Times that as an “app that allows you to make funny videos,” TikTok doesn’t really compare to Huawei in terms of threat level.
As a telecommunications firm, Huawei’s business hinges around building key, real-world infrastructure with networks that underpin industries like manufacturing, agriculture, and energy. Some experts believe that Huawei could therefore infiltrate more critical structures than TikTok.
“It’s much harder for an app to become part of essential communication infrastructure than for a provider of communication hardware,” Prof. Eerke Boiten, expert in cybersecurity at De Monfort University, told Business Insider.
Once social media apps reach a certain critical mass they may start to rival telcos in their domination of people’s everyday lives, Boiten added. “I suspect one reason that people don’t abandon Facebook and WhatsApp, despite their many problems, is that a lot of social organising in practice now happens via those channels.”
Despite TikTok’s meteoric rise, it doesn’t yet rival Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram for user numbers. Statistics revealed in its filing show TikTok has 689 million monthly active users worldwide, whereas Facebook has 3.1 billion monthly active users across Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, per its Q2 2020 regulatory filing.